Some 600,000 gallons of crude oil gushed out of a breached pipeline overnight in southern Israel, causing environmental damage that could take years to fix.
The spill resulted when maintenance work caused a rupture along a pipeline that runs near the Jordanian border and the Red Sea — a popular tourist destination for both countries.
Firefighters, police, environmental protection officers, and oil workers reportedly arrived on the scene shortly after the breach, but it took two hours to stem the flow. Much of the crude coursed into nearby streams and rivers.
Originally opened in the 1960s to move Iranian oil from the Persian Gulf to European markets, the burst pipeline was re-appropriated to run oil from Eilat — a Red Sea tourist resort in Israel — to the port city of Ashkelon after diplomatic and business ties between Iran and Israel were severed in 1979.
Evrona Nature Park, around 12 miles from Eilat, is one of the areas affected by the oil leak. The protected savanna landscape stretches over 25 square miles and includes a wealth of wildlife and natural beauty, including salt pools, deer herds, and rare Egyptian Doum palm trees.
The full extent of the damage has not yet been assessed, but Guy Samet, the southern regional chief of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, has already labeled the spill as one of Israel's "gravest pollution events."
"Crude oil flowed throughout the reserve, causing serious damage… to flora and fauna," Samet remarked to Israeli Radio. "Rehabilitation will take months, if not years."
Doron Nissim, director of the Eilat chapter of Israel's Nature and Park Authority, told Ynet News that there was "extensive pollution" as a result of the spill. "Tomorrow we'll perform an analysis of the damage and then we'll have a clearer picture," he said.
Although the area around the immediate spill site is sparsely populated, scores of people have sought medical care for respiratory problems as a result of inhaling poisonous gases.
Exposure to crude oil can cause headaches, dizziness, nosebleeds, itchy eyes, nausea, vomiting, coughing, respiratory distress, and chest pain. Inhaling substantial quantities of the toxic fumes has also been linked to increases in anxiety and depression.
Up to 80 people are believed to have been hospitalized in Jordan in the hours after the spill, and local media reported that people living nearby the affected area had been evacuated or instructed to remain inside their homes.
Financing a costly oil clean-up operation will only add to Israel's woes as it prepares for an early election amid escalating unrest between Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel's tourism industry, which accounts for 2 percent of the country's economic output, has already suffered this year as a result of increasing violence. Data released by the Ministry of Tourism showed arrivals down by 19 percent in October, and Israel's state airline El Al reported a 7 percent drop in bookings in recent weeks.
As result of an expensive seven-week Gazan war over the summer and the concurrent decline in visitors to the country, Israel's economy — which had recently been growing at annual rate of 3 percent — shrank by 0.4 percent in the third quarter this year.
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