Damage to Israeli marine environment from tar spill extreme, experts say


The environmental damage caused by the tar spill that has affected some 160 kilometers of the Israeli coastline appears to be extreme, experts told The Jerusalem Post Sunday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the government will discuss a budget to cleaning the beaches and that he has been in touch with the Egyptian authorities to promote new regulations for polluting ships.
“I was very impressed by the civic spirit of the citizens who came to clean the beaches, they represent an example and a role model,” Netanyahu said while touring the area with Environmental Minister Gila Gamliel and several mayors of the cities impacted by the spill. “We must protect our beaches, our country, our environment.”

For several days, quantities of tar from an unknown source have been washing off to Israel beaches. The situation dramatically deteriorated on Saturday.

While at the moment the source of the pollution is unknown, the authorities believe it likely came as a result of an oil or gas spill from a vessel that passed by Israel’s shores.

Gamliel said that Israel is doing everything to locate the ship.

“Our moral duty to the public and the environment is to locate those responsible for the event,” she said during the visit. “Our goal is to open the bathing season on time. We need to look to the future – this episode and other incidents around the world teach us how necessary it is to get rid of polluting fuels and move to renewable energies.”

“I think the storm we had a few days ago amplified the effect we see on the beaches today,” Prof. Colin Price, Head of the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University told the Post. “The strong winds, the huge waves and surf managed to push all the tar and oil onto the beaches.  Without the storm it may have been less damaging, and more of the spill may have remained out at sea.”

He explained that while the short-term damages are already evident, and they include the direct impact on sea turtles, birds, fish, and the beaches themselves.  

“In the long term, the damage may be less obvious,” he added. “It could take years to return to normal.”

He pointed out that many animals and plants risk to be affected, along the beaches’ dunes, as well as in the shallow water ponds.

“In terms of the aquatic ecology, I believe that the images we are seeing are pretty self-evident. It’s horrible for marine life,” Ben-Gurion University environmental microbiologist Dr. Edo Bar-Zeev said. “We will continue to find this substance on the Israeli beaches for quite a while, and the tar will keep on releasing the carbon it contains back into the ocean.”

While the risks on public health are still being evaluated, Bar-Zeev reassured the Post that the situation should not affect the drinkable water produced by the desalination plants that operated along Israel’s coastline.

“I do not foresee in any case the oil substance to pass into our drinking water,” he pointed out, stressing that the reverse-osmosis process employed to desalinate the sea water clears it from almost everything.

The spill however might still cause operational problems to the facilities.

“In many cases, organic pollution disseminated into the water blocks the desalination system,” , Bar-Zeev said. “This might therefore become an issue, but again, it is not a health issue.”

Idan Zonshine contributed to this report.

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