No Answers Yet in Oil Spill Investigation

Aerial view of the southern Israeli port city of Eilat, which figures in a multinational plan to ship oil to Europe. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

The search for the culprits in the disastrous oil spill off Israel’s shoreline continued on Monday, as the country’s future energy policy also came increasingly into question.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel told a press briefing that “either the ship deliberately dumped oil into the sea, or the oil leaked out because of a fault. Either way, the ship’s owner “lacked compassion toward [marine] wildlife and nature and did not inform the authorities.”

Gamliel said that it was “without doubt a case of malice.”

The investigation was ongoing, she said, and that the ministry had inspected 35 vessels in recent days, eliminating 12 of them from suspicion.

Answering a number of condemnatory statements by environmental activists blaming the government for not having taken steps to prevent or cope with such an event, Rani Amir, who directs the ministry’s National Unit for the Protection of the Marine Environment, said they were beside the point.

On the matter of a lack of advance warning technology, such as satellite surveillance, he said that most of the contamination of beaches would not have been avoidable in any case, as stormy weather would have prevented sending boats out to surround the slick and treat it at sea.

Amir also said that divers would not be sent to clear blocks of tar from the seabed until laboratory results determine exactly what the leaked substance is and whether the waters in the area are safe.

Gamliel took up the cause of the environmental lobby, which has opposed the plan to use Eilat as a conduit for the shipment of oil to markets in Europe. The plan calls for up to 120 oil tankers carrying up to 7.9 billion gallons (30 million cubic meters) of crude oil and oil byproducts to use the port in Eilat.

She said it looked like a “step in the wrong direction” and called for an urgent review by all relevant government bodies.

In October, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the state-owned Europe-Asia Pipeline Co. (EAPC), formerly the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Co., and MED-RED Land Bridge, a joint Israeli-UAE venture, to use Israel as a land bridge between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean for the transport of Gulf oil to markets in Europe.

The deal has been fought by an alliance of environmental organizations and more than 200 scientists. Eilat residents having been holding regular demonstrations protesting against the project.

Gamliel warned, “What we have seen this week on the beaches with the severe tar incident is tiny compared with the quantities of oil being spoken about in the case of the EAPC. Emphasis must be placed on the serious potential implications for the environment in the case of a disaster, which could change the face of the region and lead to irreversible damage.”

She added, “In global political terms, this is an anti-environmental initiative to increase the flow of crude oil instead of encouraging investment in renewable energy and a low carbon economy.

“As a result, the dangers of an oil spill in the Gulf of Eilat will increase, as they will in Ashkelon, with the emphasis on the sensitive ecological system of the Red Sea.”

She said, “The reduction of fossil fuel use in Israel, toward which the Environmental Protection Ministry is aiming, is a national, strategic aim that is essential for reducing air pollution, disease and mortality arising from their use.”

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