‘Due to Insufficient Budget, Environment Ministry Can’t Deal With a Wide-Scale Ecological Disaster’

YERUSHALAYIM -
Clumps of tar are seen on the sand after an offshore oil spill drenched much of Israel’s Mediterranean shoreline with tar, at a beach in Ashdod, Feb. 21. (Reuters/Amir Cohen)

​​“Currently there are a number of plans on the government’s table that are meant to transform Eilat and Ashkelon into ‘oil cities.’ The number of sea lines of transporting oil will increase significantly, after their number has already increased by tens of percent over the past few years,” Internal Affairs and Environment Committee Chairwoman MK Miki Haimovich (Blue and White) said Tuesday during a meeting on the oil spill at sea that has dumped tons of tar on much of Israel’s Mediterranean coastline. The tar pollution is “one of the most serious ecological disasters” in Israel’s history, according to the Nature and Parks Authority.

Minister of Environmental Protection Gila Gamliel (Likud) noted that the government approved on Tuesday the allocation of NIS 45 million for the removal of tar from Israel’s Mediterranean beaches. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has already begun the removal of some 1,200 tons of tar and other debris that washed ashore onto Israeli coastlines over the past week.

Rani Amir, director of the ministry’s National Marine Protection Division, said, “We were all taken by surprise on Feb. 17, but we were prepared. The national emergency plan was activated immediately.” The contamination, he said, is categorized as a Tier 2 event. A Tier 2 spill is one of the three levels of oil spills as categorized by the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association.

Asked by Committee Chairwoman MK Haimovich why the spill is considered only a Tier 2 event, Amir said, “The contamination hit a number of local authorities, and we knew that within two to three hours it would reach all the beaches, but there was no contamination in the sea. There was tar, but no liquid contamination. Everything flew to the beaches. We did not anticipate a danger to the power stations, ports and desalination facilities. The operations room was ready. We’ve been simulating such a situation for as long as I can remember. All the local authorities knew what needed to be done.”

Amir said the government decided to add as many as 12 permanent positions in the Ministry of Environmental Protection, but none have been approved as of yet.

Rotem Bramli of the Finance Ministry’s Budget Division said that in 2017 the Treasury allocated 90 permanent positions to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The ministry, he said, could have designated some of these positions for the NIS 100 million Fund for the Prevention of Marine Pollution, but chose not to do so. “The ministry’s workforce has grown significantly over the past few years,” Bramli noted.

In response, Gamliel said, “You are talking nonsense. Show us data. The lack of permanent positions in the ministry is worrying. The problem is that there is no governance. When there will be a state budget, we’ll take care of it. Don’t tell us stories. There are no budget surpluses in the fund.”

Committee Chairwoman Haimovich said the Ministry of Environmental Protection is significantly underfunded. “You are saving, but then cause damage that will cost the state budget more,” she said. “We will all pay if, chalilah, a major contamination will take place here. We won’t have water to drink, and our children will not be able to swim in the sea for decades. Do you understand this?” The budget of the Fund for the Prevention of Marine Pollution should not be used for adding permanent positions, she argued.

Haimovich said the issues raised during the meeting were very concerning. “We all understand that it is only a matter of time before a wide-scale contamination disaster takes place at sea. Unfortunately, from what we have heard today, the Ministry of Environmental Protection is not prepared to deal with such a wide-scale disaster, due to the [lack of sufficient funding for the ministry] over the past few years. Moreover, the plans the government of Israel is currently advancing, which seek to turn Ashkelon and Eilat into ‘oil cities,’ only add to the grave threat of a wide-scale environmental disaster that will hit the sea and Israel’s beaches.”