Millions of liters of crude oil gushed out of a breached pipeline in southern Israel early Thursday, causing what one Environmental Protection Ministry official called “one of the gravest pollution events in the country’s history.”
The official, Guy Samet, said there is a seven-kilometer (4.3 mile) long river of oil flowing through the Evrona Nature Reserve in southern Israel, some 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) north of Eilat.
Firefighters, police, Environmental Protection Ministry officials and oil pipeline maintenance teams were dispatched to the site of the spill, and managed to curtail the flow after about two hours.
The breach occurred during maintenance work that was part of preparations for the international airport under construction in Timna, in southern Israel. Once the leak was discovered, pipeline company officials shut the pipeline’s valves – but not in time to prevent the spillage of millions of liters of oil.
The pipeline, which links Eilat to the port city of Ashkelon, opened in the 1960s to facilitate the movement of Iranian oil from the Persian Gulf to European markets. Since the rupture in Israeli-Iranian relations in 1979, it has mostly been used to move oil and oil products from Eilat to different parts of Israel.
The Environmental Protection Ministry’s Green Police is investigating the cause of the spill, whether it could have been prevented and how it was handled once discovered.
Eilat Police ruled out foul play as the cause of pipeline breach, saying it was likely caused by a technical malfunction from previous maintenance work.
The main road leading to Eilat, a Red Sea resort, from central Israel was closed intermittently as emergency teams contained the leak.
Evrona Nature Reserve, one of the most important reserves in the Arava, is home to a large deer population and the northernmost douma palm trees in the world.
“Crude oil flowed throughout the reserve, causing serious damage … to flora and fauna,” Samet told Israel Radio on Thursday. He estimated the spillage at millions of liters.
“Rehabilitation will take months, if not years .. This is one of the State of Israel’s gravest pollution events. We are still having trouble gauging the full extent of the contamination.”
There was no damage on the Jordanian side of the frontier. However, Jordanian news outlets reported that large amounts of hydrogen sulfide were detected in the air around Aqaba – and some reports said that more than 80 people were hospitalized with breathing difficulties after inhaling fumes.
Shaul Goldstein, director-general of the Nature and Parks Authority, said the authority would examine the conduct of the oil pipeline company to determine whether the spill was an accident or a result of negligence.