Polluters Beware: Taking Back Nature after the Ashalim Stream Disaster

Acidic waste at Ashalim riverbed. Photo Boaz Leimzider

As the summer sun continues to beat down on Israel, the prolonged, unrelenting heatwave has forced humans, animals and plants to seek out sources of hydration.  To the horror of Israeli citizens across the country and environmental activists around the world, much of the flora and fauna dependent on the Ashalim stream in the Judean Desert are now dead or battling for survival after a toxic waste leak tainted their liquid lifeline.

Photo Goeorgy Norkin, Northern Arava Region Inspector, Israel Nature & Parks Authorities

On Friday, June 30, a phosphate holding pool of the Rotem Amfert fertilizer company collapsed, pouring 100,000 cubic meters (26.4 million gallons) of highly acidic wastewater and other pollutants – roughly enough fluid to fill 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools – into the Ashalim riverbed.  The toxic wastewater snaked through the desert destroying everything in its path before collecting again in a pool several kilometers from the Dead Sea.

More than three weeks after the incident, experts are still working around the clock to contain what is emerging as one of Israel’s most devastating environmental disasters.  Environmental and biodiversity experts from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), and Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry believe that it will take years before the full extent of the damage is known, and far longer to rehabilitate, as the impact on the stream and the plants and wildlife within 10 kilometers of the spill have been severe.

There are more than 1,000 bodies of water whose source is the now tainted stream, so the greatest immediate concern are animals seeking hydration from these poison water sources over the coming months.  Understanding that it would be impossible to fence off the entire area to animals, clean-up crews are setting up temporary troughs with clean water in hopes that the animals will drink from those instead.

After SPNI’s CEO Iris Hahn and Director of Nature Protection Nir Papay toured the area together with experts from the INPA to assess the scope of the damage, SPNI lobbyist Gitit Hirsch went to work promoting a bill intended to hold Rotem Amfert accountable for their actions and send a message to other frequent polluters. 

The bill, which is already backed by the majority of the Knesset, will allow the public to file a civil suit against polluters, with the ability to seek damages for actions that “harm protected natural value,” essentially taking them to task for the defilement of public property. 

Additionally, the bill would empower the court to direct any funds awarded for environmental damage towards conservation projects. Earmarking legal winnings for the rehabilitation of areas damage by environmental hazards falls in line with the longstanding principle of "the polluter shall pay," which has been adopted into Israeli law.

Photo Mark Katz Israel Nature & Parks Authorities

“Incidents that damage our natural environment, such as the crude oil spill from an EAPC pipeline into the Evrona nature reserve in 2014 and this latest disaster of acidic sewage contaminating the Ashalim stream, highlight the lack of public tools to protect the environment and sue polluters.  SPNI’s new bill, which has been signed by 75 Member of Knesset from all factions, is intended to remedy this situation once and for all," said Iris Hahn, CEO of SPNI.

“Effective civil law enforcement is one of the key methods for maintaining the nature protection goals set by the State of Israel, and the fundamental flaws in the existing legislation must be amended immediately for the benefit of the environment and citizens of Israel.  We believe that the potential civil claims, in addition to prosecution and enforcement by the state via the Ministry of Environmental Protection, will teach polluters that damaging nature simply does not pay.”

Members of Knesset Benny Begin, Aliza Lavie and Tali Fluskov, as well as Knesset Speaker Moshe Gafni and the heads of the Social Environmental Lobby Yael Cohen Paran, Dov Khenin, Tamar Zandberg and Rachel Azarya are the most vocal backers of the new bill.

At present, the bill is awaiting a date for discussion by the relevant Knesset committees.  While there is still a long road ahead before the bill could potentially become law, the momentum building within the Knesset gives SPNI hope that real change is within reach.

Please help SPNI advance this new bill and put polluters in their place.

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