Israelis rally to clean tar spill and avert future crises

Israel’s largest environmental disaster brings out thousands of volunteers to clean beaches and brings renewed call for prevention and monitoring.

By Abigail Klein Leichman, ISRAEL21c

Why did 1,200 tons of sticky tar begin washing up on Israel’s Mediterranean beaches on the stormy day of February 17? The answer is not yet clear.

Experts say that no matter what caused Israel’s worst environmental disaster, it should have been contained as much as possible before contaminating 160 kilometers (nearly 100 miles) of Israel’s 190-kilometer seashore. They agree that Israel must formulate better ways of preventing, detecting and clearing oil spills.

But amidst the criticism runs a strong thread of admiration for Israeli citizens.

People from environmental groups, corporations and youth movements rushed to join soldiers and a government-funded corps of formerly unemployed Israelis in removing tar and rescuing injured wildlife on beaches from Rosh Hanikra to Ashkelon.

“The volunteerism in Israel has been amazing. Over 11,000 people came within a week,” says Maya Jacobs, CEO of Zalul, an environmental organization devoted to protecting Israel’s seas and streams.

Iris Hann, CEO of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), echoed that sentiment.

“Seeing the thousands of volunteers was so amazing. I was at the Kiryat Yam beach on Saturday and at Achziv on Monday, and it was so heartwarming to see people coming with gloves and nylon bags to gather tar from the sand. It gave me so much hope because even if the government doesn’t do enough, the public is very committed.”

Yorai Lahav Hertzanu, the youngest member of the Knesset, spent the last two weekends cleaning tar from Shavei Zion beach near Nahariya and Apollonia Beach near Herzliya, along with other volunteers organized by the Yesh Atid political party.

“We got gloves and masks and put piles of tar into nylon bags, and tractors took them away,” Hertzanu tells ISRAEL21c, adding that the government needs better environmental policies to avert future disasters.

“I cannot describe the amounts of tar,” he says. “I saw two sea turtles covered in tar and we gave them to someone from INPA [the Israel Nature and Parks Authority].”

Are cleanup volunteers safe?

Chemical Sciences Prof. Mindy Levine of Ariel University says she applauds the grassroots mobilization but is concerned for volunteers’ exposure to the toxic black tar.

“It releases small molecules of toxins in the air every minute and they’re breathing that in — less so with masks but still a fair amount,” says Levine, who was part of the Gulf of Mexico Research Alliance that studied the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“Within a few weeks, most of the tar will be physically removed or degraded by the atmosphere or sunk deep into the sand where we won’t see it anymore,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

“But when the visible cleanup efforts are done, tar sunk into the soil will keep slowly releasing toxins. So people will need to be careful for a long time about going to the beach,” she warns.

“The bottom line is to use common sense. If you can smell the tar, you’re still breathing it in.”

For now, volunteers are needed because local authorities bear responsibility for environmental cleanups on their shores. They depend on nonprofit organizations (NGOs) and INPA to help them.

The EcoOcean NGO led the logistic feat of handing the 11,000 volunteers mentioned above and provided 250 trained volunteers to 22 coastal municipalities. EcoOcean is working with each one to coordinate volunteer training and deployment, EcoOcean Director Arik Rosenblum tells ISRAEL21c.