Before the Zin disaster: More than 240,000 liters of oil seeped into the Negev. The public was kept in the dark

Six months before the EAPC’s serious ecological disaster at the Zin Stream, and four years after the Evrona incident, there was another oil leak near the IDF’s Shizafon base. An investigation by Shomrim reveals that 100 tons of contaminate earth was removed the site – but the public didn’t hear a single word about it. Between Zin and Evrona, there was almost another catastrophic oil leak. The EAPC’s response: We reported it to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and we are committed to protecting natural resources. The EAPC scandal, the second in a series.

Six months before the EAPC’s serious ecological disaster at the Zin Stream, and four years after the Evrona incident, there was another oil leak near the IDF’s Shizafon base. An investigation by Shomrim reveals that 100 tons of contaminate earth was removed the site – but the public didn’t hear a single word about it. Between Zin and Evrona, there was almost another catastrophic oil leak. The EAPC’s response: We reported it to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and we are committed to protecting natural resources. The EAPC scandal, the second in a series.

Six months before the EAPC’s serious ecological disaster at the Zin Stream, and four years after the Evrona incident, there was another oil leak near the IDF’s Shizafon base. An investigation by Shomrim reveals that 100 tons of contaminate earth was removed the site – but the public didn’t hear a single word about it. Between Zin and Evrona, there was almost another catastrophic oil leak. The EAPC’s response: We reported it to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and we are committed to protecting natural resources. The EAPC scandal, the second in a series.

Daniel Dolev

Photo: Shomrim

August 3, 2021

Summary

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en years have passed since 700,000 liters of jet fuel severely contaminated the Zin Stream, in one of Israel’s worst ecological disasters. Seven years have gone by since 5 million liters of oil polluted the Evrona Nature Reserve. Now, an investigation by Shomrim reveals that these two ecological disasters were preceded a smaller incident: 240,000 liters of oil that leaked from an old pipeline belonging to the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company and polluted land close to the IDF’s Shizafon base.

Despite the severity of the incident, the Israeli public was kept in the dark at the time. What’s even more surprising is the fact that the relevant officials at the time, working for the local council and the Ministry of Environmental Protection, do not recall being told about the incident or efforts to clean up afterwards. A comprehensive search of the archives reveals that news of the incident only reached the public through two short and insignificant mentions in the press. One of these articles appeared in a local Eilat newspaper and was only published several years after the incident. In this investigation, we reveal new details about that leak.

Could increased transparency on the part of the EAPC – and, more importantly, some kind of statement from the Ministry of Environmental Protection – help prevent future leaks? It is safe to assume that the answer is yes. The EAPC, for its part, claims that it reported the incident to the ministry – a claim it backs up with the document appended to this report. The company implies, quite correctly, that it is not responsible for informing the public about the incident. The Ministry of Environmental Protection responded that a search of its archives failed to locate a statement to the press and that, since so many years have passed, there would be no way to find any such statement. Their full responses appear at the end of this article.

In the past few months, the EAPC has hit the headlines because of a deal it reached with a company from the United Arab Emirates, which would see millions of liters of oil flow through the Eilat to Ashkelon pipeline – which was laid some 50 years ago. The EAPC rejected criticism of the deal, claiming that the pipeline is safe and that all its facilities adhere to the most stringent safety regulations and are environmentally responsible.

The following investigations highlight several problematic incidents over the past decade that would appear to contradict this claim.

In the late 1950s, a 16-inch diameter pipeline was laid between Eilat and Haifa, to transport oil from Israel’s southernmost port to the refineries in Haifa. A decade later, the Ashkelon-Eilat Pipeline Company was established. The company was a joint Israeli-Iranian venture and it assumed ownership of the pipeline. Later, a new pipeline was laid. This one was 42 inches in diameter and ran between Eilat and Ashkelon. Use of most sections of the old pipeline was phased out. In the early 1980s, it was decided to resume use of the old pipeline. The defense establishment wanted to use it to transport jet fuel from oil depots near Beer Shave to the Arava.

The pipeline was divided into two sections: the northern section carried oil up to the Shizafon region, while the southern section, which reaches all the way to Eilat, was used as a kind of storehouse for fuel and other liquids. In 2008, the EAPC decided to stop using the old pipeline, since it was in poor condition. More than five decades after it was laid, it became apparent to the EAPC that large parts of the pipeline were susceptible to leaks, and that parts of the pipeline were no longer underground and had been exposed to the elements. For various reasons, it was decided to repair the northern section and halt use of the southern section. In the first article in this series, Shomrim revealed that the southern section of the pipeline – which the EAPC itself described as “a ticking bomb” – had been used to store 7 million liters of jet fuel for around seven years. Now, the Ministry of Environmental Protection is demanding the emptying of another section of the pipeline, which is apparently in better condition, and which contains an unknown but large quantity of oil.

Meanwhile, in the northern section of the pipeline: For various technical reasons, any repair work on the pipeline requires that oil no longer flows through it, although it does not have to be empty. On December 28, 2010, the EAPC situation room got an alert about a drop in pressure in the pipeline, which, by then, no longer had oil flowing through it. The company sent an inspector out to the field and, adjacent to the Shizafon army base, he found a pool of oil, alongside tire tracks and construction waste. It became apparent that a heavy engineering vehicle operated by a contractor working on the base had dug a hole, struck the pipeline and ruptured it. The EAPC sent an initial report to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and, within days, it had become clear that 243,000 liters of oil had leaked out of the pipeline.

Evrona nature reserve in 2014. Photo: Reuters
On December 28, 2010, the EAPC situation room got an alert about a drop in pressure in the pipeline, which, by then, no longer had oil flowing through it. The company sent an inspector out to the field and, adjacent to the Shizafon army base, he found a pool of oil, alongside tire tracks and construction waste. The EAPC sent an initial report to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and, within days, it had become clear that 243,000 liters of oil had leaked out of the pipeline.

After the incident, the EAPC asked for a report from an appraisal company, to assess the damage and demand compensation from the Defense Ministry. According to the report – a copy of which was obtained by Shomrim – around 100 tons of contaminated earth had to be removed from the area. Udi Gat, who served as the head of the regional council in which the army base is located, told Shomrim that he does not recall any such incident. Yossi Inbar, who was director-general of the Ministry of Environmental Protection at the time, also told Shomrim that he does not remember that specific incident. Inbar asked to add that the ministry “did not have a policy of cover-ups.”

Unlike those two officials, Omri Yadin, who lives on nearby Neot Smadar, does have a vague recollection of the incident. He says that he did not see oil gushing from the pipe himself, but other residents described it to him. “I remember that the pipe burst, and black oil leaked out, or some kind of black liquid. What I saw was polluted, dirty land. But on a small scale.”

240,000 liters of jet fuel leaked out there.

“That could be, but in terms of the effect on the ground, it wasn’t as bad as the Evrona National Park [which was contaminated in 2014 – DD]. It affected a small area near the junction. It was absorbed because the land there is porous. It was all just absorbed. Because it was a small area, right inside an interchange, no one was growing anything and there’s no vegetation. It was unused land. So, as far as I am concerned, there wasn’t any great environmental damage. As far as the incident itself is concerned, when oil pipelines are ruptured, that’s a big deal.”

A similar incident happened in 1999, also on the Shizafon base, but Shomrim was unable to ascertain how much oil leaked.

722,000 liters of pollution in the Zin Stream

Within six months, it would become apparent that the Shizafon leak was just a preview of the real disaster to come. In the early morning hours of June 29, 2011, not far from Sde Boker, an engineering team from a company called Har Hanegev Transporters was working on exposing a section of the pipeline, as part of repair work. At around 7 A.M., they were confronted by Zachi Olianik, an inspector from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, who warned them that an ancient tamarisk tree, which was a protected natural asset, was in their planned path. He told them they were not allowed to touch it.

After a brief exchange, it was decided that the workers would use a digger to uproot and relocate the tree. When the driver put the bucket of the digger into the ground, he struck the pipeline. According to eyewitnesses, the stream of oil that gushed from the pipe was dozens of meters high.

For around half an hour the toxic liquid gushed from the pipeline until one of the EAPC’s on-site supervisors turned off the nearest valve. Even after that, oil still flowed from the pipe for five hours, but at less intense pressure. In total, 722,000 liters of oil were leaked that day, contaminating the nearby Zin Stream.

Former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion observer the Zin Stream in 1968. Photo: Fritz Cohen - GPO
 On February 17, 2014, while Shlomi Levy, the EAPC’s head of engineering, was inspecting the work, he noticed fresh damage to the line and ordered an immediate halt to work. It turned out the EAPC’s on-site inspector had spotted the same damage the day before but assumed that it was not fresh and did not report it.

Amram Zabari, an inspector with the INPA, was rushed to the site of the disaster at around noon that day and stayed until late at night. “For several days after returned from the site of the leak,” he testified in court, “my eyes were stinging, and my throat burned from breathing in the fumes.”

A month later, with desperate and sluggish efforts afoot to save the land and the groundwater, the Ministry of Environmental Protection gave the EAPC permission to continue repair work on the pipeline in exactly the same area. And, on September 5, 2011, an engineering team reopened the hiking path that had been closed for work that took place within the Avdat National Park. That section of the pipeline, however, had only been buried to a depth of 37 centimeters – despite orders that it be buried one meter underground. Indeed, that was the specification submitted to the Ministry of Environmental Protection and is stricter than 45 centimeters required according to international standards. When the driver of digger tried to use his vehicle to level the path, he struck the pipeline and ruptured it in two places.

Nine weeks after the first leak – and just 200 meters from the site of the original incident – hundreds of thousands of liters of oil once again flowed in the Zin Stream.

Five years later, the state pressed charges against the companies involved. Two of them were convicted on several counts, as part of plea bargains, and were ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of shekels in fines. The case against the EAPC and five of its executives is still ongoing at the Beer Sheva Magistrates Court.

Lesson learned? Think again

Text: One could be forgiven for thinking that, in the aftermath of the disasters at Ze’elim and the Zin Stream, all those involved in repairing the pipeline would act with extra care. In practice, it appears that exactly the opposite happened, and another catastrophic leak was only narrowly averted.

In January 2013, the EAPC published a tender for the renovation of a 44-kilometer section of the line, between Paran and the Ramon Crater. It was to be a complex project, involving repair work on the pipeline while jet fuel continued to flow through it. The budget for the work stood at more than 20 million shekels and a small group of preselected companies applied for the tender.

The company that won the tender offered to complete the work at a cost of 22.5 million shekels. It had already started work on the ground, but a regional court order brought everything grinding to a halt. The order was issued in response to a claim by one of companies that lost the tender that the winning firm did not have the appropriate state-designated clearance to carry out such a large project. The EAPC argued that it was not subject to the law regulating tenders or the need for relevant clearance – arguments that the judge, Ilan Shiloh, rejected.

The tender was awarded to the Lesico construction company and work repairing the pipeline began in July 2013. Within just seven months, however, work was halted again. On February 17, 2014, while Shlomi Levy, the EAPC’s head of engineering, was inspecting the work, he noticed fresh damage to the line and ordered an immediate halt to work. It turned out the EAPC’s on-site inspector had spotted the same damage the day before but assumed that it was not fresh and did not report it.

An extensive investigation by the company revealed no fewer than 11 places in which the line had been damaged – all within 450 meters of pipeline. In four cases, the line had been crushed and in seven there were scratches. The most severe damage almost led to the pipeline being ruptured. According to the EAPC, in four cases the damage was so severe that a section of the pipeline had to be replaced entirely.

Evrona nature reserve in 2014. Photo: Reuters
An extensive investigation by the company revealed no fewer than 11 places in which the line had been damaged – all within 450 meters of pipeline. In four cases, the line had been crushed and in seven there were scratches. The most severe damage almost led to the pipeline being ruptured. According to the EAPC, in four cases the damage was so severe that a section of the pipeline had to be replaced entirely.

Following this incident, the CEO of Lesico, Yehuda Leshman, was summoned to a hearing by senior EAPC executive Simcha Koren, who recorded their conversation. According to the recording, Koren told Leshman that, “We’re talking about four damaged section and another eight scratches. That’s 11 times (sic) in one section. The digger or the digger’s spoon touched the pipeline. Eleven times! I’m saying the words, but I can’t believe my own ears. There are two questions here. The first question is about the damage itself, the fact that the line has been damaged. And the second question is about your failure to report it in real time. Because if you had reported it, and you had reported it the first time it happened, there wouldn’t have been another 10 incidents.”

Leshman expressed remorse and took responsibility for the incidents. “There’s no good reason for what happened,” he said. “It should never have happened... I told our people to think about the pipeline as if it were a high-power cable with 160 kilowatts so that anyone who touches it would be killed. That’s what I told my people. Like in the Tabernacle – if you get close to the Holy Ark, you’ll be incinerated. There’s no justification… I have no excuses or explanations and I accept your decision with understanding. Whatever you decide will be the right decision; we put you in clear danger.”

The EAPC removed Lesico from the job and the two sides later met again in court. “It was a total security failing,” the EAPC wrote in a lawsuit it filed against Lesico. “Damage to the oil pipeline could have led to a rupture and the leak of dangerous materials; it would have endangered the lives of everyone working on the pipeline, it would have done untold damage to the environment, including to the groundwater, flora and fauna. In terms of the security failings, there’s no difference between a rupture in the pipeline and damage that only by a miracle did not lead to a leak. Any time a heavy engineering vehicle even touched the pipeline, it’s a very serious incident and we consider it as severe as rupturing the pipe.”

In response to accusation that it violated security instructions and, therefore, its contract, the contractor claimed that the EAPC was exaggerating the damage and using it as an excuse to terminate the contract.”

Responses

Head: EAPC: “Committed to protecting natural resources” | Ministry of Environmental Protection: “We issued clean-up instructions for the contaminated ground”

The EAPC response: “This is an attempt to denigrate and besmirch the professionalism and operations of the EAPC, by raising historic incidents that happened more than a decade ago and have already been addressed and discussed. The attempt to link between all these events [that is, the previous article in this series – DD], as if there were any connection between them, is designed solely to mislead the public. All the incidents described in the article were reported on in real-time to all the relevant authorities and in accordance with the law; they were immediately dealt with in accordance with court decision, the demands of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and accepted standards. Proof of this can be found in our reports submitted to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

“As for the Zin Stream, that was an incident that happened during work to cover a section of that pipeline that had been repaired – work that was carried out by a contractor hired by the EAPC. Court hearings show that it was the order by an inspector from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to relocate a tree that sparked the incident. The judge who ruled on the case, Sara Haviv, pointed out that it would hard to have any complains vis-à-vis the EAPC’s behavior, when it was not responsible to the decision to move the tree.

“The EAPC is a supervised government company which is monitored by many different bodies, including the Finance Ministry, the Government Companies Authority and the Environmental Protection Ministry. The company’s pipelines and facilities are maintained routinely; they are in proper working order, and, like all the company’s facilities, they meet the most stringent Israeli and international standards (API). The EAPC is committed to safeguarding the wellbeing of local residents and protecting natural resources, the sea and the environment.”

The Ministry of Environmental Protection sent the following response: “The ministry got a report from the EAPC about damage to its pipeline, in accordance with the 2006 regulations relating to water pollution and oil pipelines. In accordance with the various reports, the ministry issued instructions on dealing with the resultant contamination.

“One of the key dangers that emerged from the operation of an oil pipeline stems from the fear that an external party could damage the pipeline (as happened adjacent to the Shizafon army base and by the Mei Carmel Water Corporation). In order to avert this danger, the EAPC was obligated to carry out inspections of the work to identify possible issues along the pipeline and to halt any work that might be planned without prior coordination. Similarly, the EAPC is obligated to place clear signs on the entire length of the pipeline, to reduce the risk of damage by a third party.”

Lesico opted not to respond to this article.