Oil Spill Probe Placed Under Censor

YERUSHALAYIM -

A court order banning publication of details of the disastrous oil spill off the Israeli coast was issued on Monday, drawing criticism from environmental organizations.

Investigators were said to be working to identify the ship responsible for the damage, tons of tar that washed up on the country’s beaches and will take years to clean up.

Meanwhile, any details which could identify the suspects – including the names of people or vessels, destination or exit ports, navigation routes or cargo – are forbidden for publication.

The Haifa Magistrates Court issued the gag order on Monday upon a request filed by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

According to the Ministry, the spill occurred over 30 miles off the coast of Israel outside its territorial waters. Israel is a party to the Barcelona Convention, which requires countries and vessels to report any unusual event, but Israeli authorities no such report.

Officials denied reports that the Ministry knew about the spill before the tar reached shore on February 17.

Subsequently, they contacted REMPEC from Malta and EMSA with a search request using their satellite systems. The Europeans conducted a close inspection which found a about ten possible suspects in the area for being a source of contamination. Officials have been examining the evidence, The Jerusalem Post reported.

The censor ruling drew a critical response from environmental activists.

“When the entities operating at sea and producing a risk of pollution are rich oil companies and shipping companies that have much influence on the regulator, Zalul demands a transparent investigation and that the [censor] order be lifted immediately,” said Maya Jacobs, director-general of the Zalul Environmental Association.

Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense) warned that “hiding all issues related to the investigation of the tar disaster is a fatal blow to public confidence in the government and regulators who are supposed to ensure the safety of the public and the environment. On environmental issues, certainly when it comes to disasters of this magnitude, transparency and disclosure of information to the public is critical and enshrined in the law and rulings.”

Adam Teva V’Din was reportedly considering options to appeal the censor order.

Dr. Revital Goldschmid, from the Environmental Research Center in Haifa, went further, accusing the Ministry of negligence.

“The Environmental Protection Ministry did not take measures to monitor and prevent the ecological disaster and thus allowed it to occur. The ministry delayed and did not warn the public in time about the severity and dangers – and now the ministry operates in the absence of transparency towards the country’s citizens who volunteered to help clean the beaches.”

On Monday, MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) called on the State Comptroller to investigate the government’s conduct.

“Behind the grim images of pollution on the beaches are many failures that require in-depth examination; it is a man-made [tragedy] that could have been prevented,” she was quoted saying by the Post.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said on Sunday that the ministry will request that the government approve immediate budgets for beach rehabilitation, manpower and national preparedness for ocean and beach oil pollution, among other measures.