After a week of clean-up efforts, tar still ‘everywhere’ on Israel’s beaches

It’s only when you see it with your own eyes that you begin to understand the scope of the oil disaster that has hit most of Israel’s Mediterranean coastline

At Achziv beach in northern Israel, from where you can see the Lebanese border, the sand doesn’t look too bad from a distance.

But when you get up close, you see that the tar is still everywhere — and that’s after more than a week during which volunteers have been cleaning up.

The shoreline is still peppered with balls of tar, some a couple of centimeters (an eighth of an inch) in length, others so small that you only see them when you bend down.

Tar washed ashore at Achziv beach, February 25, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

They’re mixed into the driftwood and the bits of plastic that have washed up onto the shore.

They’re stuck into the little holes of the kurkar rocks (fossilized sand) that resemble faces scarred by smallpox.

And if you climb onto the rocks and look out at the bright green algae under the surface of the tide, you see that this, too, is streaked with black.

Tar under the water at Achziv beach, February 25, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Larger pieces are still lurking on the seabed just off Achziv, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority announced on Friday.

The oil disaster became evident just over a week ago, after stormy weather, and the washing up on the southern coast of Israel of a dead, juvenile fin whale, although the whale’s cause of death is still being investigated.

Five of the 10 tankers that were in the area to which the oil spill that caused the disaster has been traced — some 50 kilometers (31 miles) offshore — are still under suspicion and investigation.

The authorities have ordered everyone except the cleanup volunteers to keep away from the 160 kilometers (99 miles) of beach affected, out of the total 195 km (121 miles) of Mediterranean coastline, all the way from Rosh Hanikra in the north to Ashkelon in the south. As a precautionary measure, the Health Ministry on Wednesday evening indefinitely banned the sale of fish and seafood from the Mediterranean.

On Thursday, though, hobby fishermen were out on the rocks of Achziv.

Yussuf from with his catch of fish from Achziv beach in northern Israel, February 25, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Yussuf from Jadeidi-Makr, to the southeast of Achziv, was unaware that his catch might be contaminated. Informed of the situation by this reporter, he said thank you and promised that he’d dispose of the fish he had caught.

A little further south, toward the ruins of an ancient fishing village that form the main entrance to the Achziv National Park, Yossi Habif was trying to sort through pebbles still covered in shiny oil.

A resident of Kiryat Bialik north of Haifa, he works at Israel Chemicals’ TAMI Institute for R&D in Haifa.

“On Monday, I was at Dor beach (west of Zichron Ya’akov in northern Israel) taking samples,” he said, “Today, I’m volunteering, at the company’s expense.”

Holding up an oil-smeared pebble, he added, “It’s terrible. It’s such painstaking work. How much of this can you clean up?”

Yossi Habif helping to clean up from an oil spill at Achziv beach in northern Israel, February 25, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

He revealed that he and his colleagues are testing the idea of sending the contamination, together with the detritus to which it is stuck, to Israel Chemicals Ltd.’s oil shale combustion plant at Mishor Rotem in the Negev, in southern Israel. This produces electricity and steam for company plants that process the phosphate rock it extracts from the Rotem mine.

At the northernmost point of Israel’s Mediterranean coast, Guy Lavi, who is responsible for operations at the Rosh Hanikra tourist site, confirmed that “by a miracle,” the famous grottoes were unaffected by the contamination.

I found one huge block of tar, which I was able to remove, and that was it,” he said.

Guy Lavi, responsible for operations of the Rosh Hanikra tourist site in northern Israel, close to the Lebanese border, February 26, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

He described the Mediterranean Sea as resembling “a large sink” into which contamination of different kinds is poured, including sewage which he sometimes sees drifting down from Lebanon, just across the border.

“This is my beach,” he said, looking out over the expanse of coastline stretching south from Rosh Hanikra. “I feel personally injured. Wherever you look, you see the tar. It’s crazy.”

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