Study: Ecosystem could collapse in nature reserve hit by oil spill 7 years ago

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Southern Israel nature reserve that suffered a massive oil spill seven years ago shows no signs of recovery and its ecosystem could collapse if ways are not found to clean up the soil and allow acacia seeds to start sprouting again, according to the findings of a five-year monitoring study released Thursday.

On December 3, 2014, some 5 million liters (1.32 million US gallons) of crude oil spilled from a pipe owned by the Europe Asia Pipeline Company in the Evrona Nature Reserve in the Arava Desert.

The spill occurred near Be’er Ora, about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) north of Eilat, during maintenance work prior to the construction of a new airport in Timna.

After the first steps to pump and remove as much oil as possible, a five-year reserve monitoring program was launched in 2016 under the leadership of HaMaarag, the national scientific organization responsible for collecting data on the condition of ecosystems and biodiversity in Israel. .

The aim was to assess the changes since the 2014 oil leak. During the monitoring, scientists also discovered evidence of an earlier oil leak from 1975 that was never addressed.

Among the findings announced at an online conference Thursday, were that crude oil levels were still very high in areas affected by the 1975 spill, as well as that of seven years ago, and that remediation n did not happen even after almost half a century. .

A lizard covered in oil on December 16, 2014, three weeks after the massive oil spill in the Arava Desert in southern Israel (Photo credit: Roy Talbi / Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection)

One of the most disturbing findings is that while mature acacias did not show long-term damage, there was only very limited germination of acacia seeds in polluted areas in 1975 and 2014. Those that sprouted failed to grow.

Acacias are key species in extreme desert environments, upon which much of the ecosystem depends.

Due to the reserve’s fragility, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority decided following the spill to launch an on-site pilot project using bacteria to break down the oil. The results were encouraging: petroleum concentrations fell 77.6 percent. Last year the organic method was repeated throughout the reserve. But according to soil samples, the oil drop was only 46.4% – not enough for the acacia seeds to germinate.

“Without acacia germination, the ecosystem would undergo significant changes and could even collapse completely,” says the final report of the monitoring program. “INPA will test other methods of cleaning the soil and rehabilitating ecological processes in the reserve.”

A specimen of Twisted Acacia (Acacia raddiana) growing in the Evrona Nature Reserve in southern Israel. (Idan Shapira)

Likewise, no real recovery was observed after the 2014 spill among groups of wildlife such as bat insects and arthropods (invertebrate animals with an exoskeleton).

As the conference heard, the widespread and continuing damage is evident at all levels of the food chain.

“The ecosystem of the Evrona reserve has been severely damaged by oil pollution,” said monitoring project coordinator Dr Rael Horwitz. “A nearby site that was contaminated in a very similar case 46 years ago is also still extremely damaged. “

Maarag scientists take samples in the Evrona nature reserve in southern Israel. (HaMaarag)

“Without extreme intervention on the ground, the system cannot be rehabilitated. However, any intervention creates new complexities that directly and indirectly affect the ecosystem. Continuous monitoring is necessary in order to monitor the effects of the interface actions planned for the restoration of the reserve on the ecosystem.

The report said the Evrona oil spill was the only one documented in an extreme desert environment in the world, so there was no rehabilitation effort to compare with. The measures taken by Israel will help other countries facing similar disasters.

Dr. Yehoshua Shkedy, Chief Scientist at INPA, said: “The initial operations to pump the oil and remove it from the reserve significantly reduced environmental damage, but left around 145 dunams (36 acres) of land. soaked in black oil.

“The reserve’s monitoring program is the largest to take place in Israel and it encompasses most levels of the ecosystem: soil, soil bacteria, plants, invertebrates of many groups, reptiles, birds and bats.

In 2018, the Ministry of Environmental Protection assessed the damage in Evrona at 281 million shekels ($ 80 million). In 2019, he struck a deal where state-owned Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company, also known as Europe Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC), would pay 100 million shekels ($ 28 million) in compensation.

Last year, state prosecutors announced that the EAPC, along with five current and former senior executives of the company, could face trial, pending a hearing, for their alleged role in the oil spill.

HaMaarag works with scientists from all over the country. Independent and privately funded, it represents a partnership between the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the KKL Jewish National Fund. It is based at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University.

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