Israel Oil Spill Four Times Worse Than Initially Thought

CREDIT: AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

Employees of the Trans-Israel Pipeline clean up the large deposits of crude oil that gushed out of a breached pipeline near the southern Israeli village of Beer Ora, north of Eilat, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014. Israel says a breached pipeline has caused a large oil spill in the southern part of the country. The spill occurred when the pipeline, linking Eilat to the port city of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean Sea, burst. The spill occurred in a dramatic desert landscape featuring steeply rising cliffs near Israel's border with Jordan.

The company responsible for what many are calling Israel’s worst-ever environmental disaster has admitted that the amount of oil it spilled in the Arava desert is about four times larger than it initially estimated, Haaretz reported on Sunday.

In a new report to Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry, the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company said that 5 million liters, or 1.3 million gallons of crude oil spilled from the southern tip of the 153-mile Trans-Israel pipeline on Thursday night. The company’s first estimate on Thursday was that 1 million liters, or about 260,000 gallons of oil had spilled. It quickly raised its estimate to around 600,000 gallons on Friday.

According to Haaretz, the new figures raise questions about the company’s initial assurances that it had stopped the flow of oil from the pipeline as soon as the leak was found. In response, Israel’s state Comptroller Yosef Shapira has reportedly started an investigation, as has the Environmental Protection Ministry’s “Green Police.”

Even before the larger estimate, the spill had already been called “one of the gravest pollution events in the country’s history,” according to Israel Environmental Protection Ministry official Guy Samet, who also said the spill could take months, maybe years, to fully clean up. The breach — the cause of which is still unknown but has been so far attributed to “mechanical failure” and not foul play — took place near Eilat, a southern Israel city with a population of about 50,000 people.

At first, the city itself was not said to be in immediate danger. But now, Haaretz reports that makeshift dams are being built to stop the flowing river of oil from making its way to the city in the event of a rain storm. The spill also borders the neighboring city of Aqaba, Jordan, where fumes have already been detected.

On Friday, some Israeli media outlets had already reported adverse effects to human health. According to at least one media report, more than 80 people in Aqaba had been hospitalized for breathing difficulties due to hydrogen sulfide in the air. Three Israelis were also reportedly hospitalized for inhaling toxic fumes.

To make matters worse, the spill also took place in a nature reserve — specifically, the Evrona Nature Reserve, which the Environment Ministry called “one of the most important reserves in the [Arava desert].” The reserve reportedly holds large deer population, and the northernmost douma palm trees in the world.

To find out more about how cleanup is going, Israel’s Environment Ministry is providing updates here.