A pipe burst in the desert, causing the worst ecological calamity Israel has ever seen. Why was no one held accountable?

A pipe burst in an isolated area of southern Israel last week resulting in an oil leak. No big deal? A very big deal! In what is being described as the “worst ecological calamity in the state’s history,” some five million liters of crude oil spilled out to cause serious damage to one of the country’s most unique, and less known nature reserves. While images of contaminated, blackened desert riverbeds were shown repeatedly on local television screens, not a single voice of authority stood up to claim responsibility for the disaster.

The pipe belonged to the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) and has been used to transport Asian oil from Israel’s southern port city to refineries at Ashkelon. Originally established in 1968 as a joint venture with Iran, EAPC today operates 750 kilometers of pipelines in Israel. A previous spill in 2011 caused extensive damage to the Nahal Zin nature reserve, but that was only 1,000 cubic meters of jet fuel.

This time the spillage was far greater and it is estimated that it will take 50 years to rehabilitate the Evrona nature reserve, located in the Arava region some twenty kilometers north of Eilat. Evrona, a rarely visited stretch of desert lying along the Jordanian border, is barely noticed as motorists speed south to holiday vacations on the Red Sea shore. Evrona is home to both rare deer and the northernmost Egyptian Doum palm trees in the world.

I lived on a kibbutz in the Arava for seven years and grew to truly appreciate the beauty of its pristine expanses of desert landscape dotted with thorny acacia trees. I frequently hiked in the dry wadis, riverbeds susceptible to flash floods in the winter months.

When rain fell in southern Israel this week, it was feared that the floodwaters would carry the oil south as far as the Gulf of Eilat. Luckily, a hastily constructed barrier of dams and artificial lakes contained the oil spillage, even as workers hurried to remove the contaminated soil.

The rupture occurred in a 42-inch pipe, but as yet, no one has explained exactly how this happened. Initial reports stated that the pipe was accidentally damaged during construction work on a new international airport that will serve tourists visiting Eilat.

Five million liters of crude oil caused severe environmental damage. The worst ecological disaster in Israel’s history. And yet, the catastrophe has been met with near silence. EAPC has issued no official statements concerning the oil spill. David Leffler, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Environment Protection, visited Evrona last week and then continued on his way to a climate conference in Peru.

The acting Minister of Environment Protection today is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who assumed the position with the resignation last month of MK Amir Peretz (Hatnuah). It took five days, and intensive pressure from the media, until Netanyahu found the time to visit the site of the leak.

“In recent days we’ve been busy with many issues, but the moment we were informed of the oil leak, I’ve followed the situation closely… and I came here at the first opportunity,” Netanyahu said.

The prime minister has been busy with other things, such as fighting for his political life ahead of Israel’s upcoming parliamentary elections. Deputy Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud) has been placed in charge of the Environmental Protection Ministry until the elections.

I hope that Israel’s next government will take more responsibility for protecting the country’s environment, but the damage has already been caused to Evrona, damage that will take decades to reverse.