Government allocates NIS 45 million to clean up tar-polluted beaches

The government on Tuesday approved NIS 45 million ($13.8 million) for the cleanup of Israel’s Mediterranean beaches, most of which have been severely contaminated by tar following an oil spill at sea which is currently under investigation.

The government’s announcement followed a court decision Tuesday morning to cancel a seven-day ban on the reporting of any details about the probe, in favor of a package of more limited reporting rules. The change followed a petition from several media organizations.

Israelis have been told to stay away from the beaches all along the Mediterranean coast, from Rosh Hanikra in the north to Ashkelon in the south, after tons of tar began washing ashore late last week in what some experts have called the worst environmental disaster to hit the country’s beaches in decades.

The NIS 45 million — proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel — will come from the state’s Fund for the Prevention of Marine Pollution, created some 40 years ago to pay for cleanups as well as equipment and training to respond to oil spills.

Israeli volunteers clean tar off a beach following an offshore oil spill that covered most of the Israeli Mediterranean coastline with tar, February 22, 2021. (Flash90)

The fund’s money comes largely from fees charged to ships and fuel terminals, with around a third generated from oil pollution-related fines.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel walk on Ashdod beach on February 21, 2021, after an offshore oil spill caused damage along Israel’s Mediterranean coast (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Tuesday’s cabinet decision followed an inconclusive confab Monday evening at which politicians criticized each other over the handling of the disaster and the Finance Ministry refused to grant Gamliel’s request.

The NIS 45 million, to include an immediate payout of NIS 62,500 ($19,200), will be used to support the cleanup work of local authorities along the coast as well as the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, under whose jurisdiction some of the contaminated beaches fall. It will also fund the removal and disposal of tar collected from the beaches, economic and environmental surveys, monitoring and recording of the extent of the damage, beach and wildlife rehabilitation and trials of innovative cleaning methods.

It was agreed that Gamliel will present a memorandum within 30 days regarding legislation on preparedness and response to marine oil contamination.

The ministries of environment and finance will discuss earmarking a further NIS 25 million ($7.7 million) that the fund can make immediately available for any future disaster of this kind.

Finally, a committee will be created under the chairmanship of Environmental Protection Ministry Director-General David Yahalomi, with representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office and the ministries of finance and the interior. The committee’s mission will be to recommend, within six months, ways of dealing with maritime disaster scenarios and preventing them, including budgetary and regulatory needs.

Israelis enjoy the beach in Tel Aviv, as temperatures rise to 40 degrees in some parts of the country, May 16, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In order to open the annual beachgoing season on March 20 — three days before national elections, two months before the season was opened last year and a few weeks before it opened in 2019 — the finance and interior ministries mean to agree within a fortnight on a budget for opening the beaches, operating them and providing the necessary safety and rescue services.

The decision was welcomed by the Sharon Carmel Towns Association, which represents nine local authorities and announced Monday that it would not be committing any more staff time to the cleanup so long as government funds were not forthcoming. It was also praised by environmental organizations such as the Society for the Protection of Nature and Zalul.

But the SPNI said that the current move had come years too late.

In 2008, the government decided to formulate a National Plan for Preparedness and Response to Marine Oil Pollution Incidents. A cabinet decision, made in June 2008 when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, ordered that within three to five years from January 1, 2009, the ministry would fill staff positions and acquire all the equipment and sailing vessels it needed to prevent oil contaminations at sea.

The ministry was instructed to discuss with the Treasury any funding needs it could not meet on its own, in the run-up to the 2009 budget. And the environmental protection minister at the time (Gideon Ezra of the now-defunct Kadima party) was ordered to ensure that the plan was enshrined in law, along with the requirements of the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation, to which Israel is a signatory.

But the plan never made it into the law books. And the Finance Ministry effectively blocked the transfer of additional funds.

Israeli soldiers clean tar off the Palmachim beach in central Israel, February 22, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Thousands of volunteers have been cleaning tar off the beaches, assisted by organized groups from bodies such as the military and the police. Over the past few days, numerous pictures have been posted on social media of tar-covered animals.

On Tuesday morning, the Haifa Magistrates Court canceled the seven-day gag order it had granted to the Environmental Protection Ministry on Monday, which banned the media from reporting any details about the spill investigation until February 28.

Following uproar from environmental organizations and a petition by several media organizations to scrap or reduce the reporting limitations, Judge Ziad Fallah scrapped the order, saying he had “weighed all the considerations and obtained the right balance between the different interests.”

Instead, he issued a much-reduced set of instructions. These prohibit the media from publishing anything about the way in which the investigation is being conducted, the bodies involved in it or any details coming out of the investigation itself, until February 28.

He ruled against publishing the name of ships other than those already published until Wednesday at 4 p.m.

But he gave the green light for media outlets to carry out and publish from their own investigations, saying that these could help the authorities to do their work.

“While I forbade the media from publishing anything that originated from within the investigative authority, I allow the investigative authorities to use details that have come out of independent investigations by the media…in order to advance their investigation,” the judge ruled.

Tar is stuck on rocks after an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea, at Tel-Dor Nature Reserve in Nahsholim, Israel, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The lawyer representing the Environmental Protection Ministry, Yoni Shamir, requested at the opening of the proceedings that the total ban remain in place, arguing that publication of any details relating to the probe or to those involved could harm the ministry’s own efforts to track down the suspects and bring them to justice.

“The petitioners want a transparent inquiry,” he said. “I have been in the enforcement field for many years. The request for a transparent criminal investigation is one with internal contradictions that would lead to a field tribunal and prevent the ministry from conducting its own work in a thorough way,” he said.

He argued that the current case was unusual in that it included suspects who were difficult to track, an apparent crime that had taken place in international waters and the involvement of international organizations in the inquiry.

The Minerva Helen crude oil tanker, seen at the oil terminal of Dunkirk, France. (Remi Jouan, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Referring to a report by Kan TV news Monday that a Greek-owned oil tanker called Minerva Helen was a suspect in the oil spill probe, he charged that violations of the initial gag order by some elements in the media had already caused damage.

“Kan [news] contacted a company attached to one of the ships and received its version. In this way, a suspect is given to understand that we are following it, and the task of gathering evidence becomes more difficult,” Shamir said.

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