A consortium of Tel Aviv University professors and internationally recognized environmental experts filed a request to the Beersheba District Court on Monday in one of the country’s most ambitious class action suits against environmental pollution.
The suit documents massive contamination from Rotem Amfert Negev and Dead Sea Periclase Fused Products of the Havurat Yehuda aquifer, which the petitioners allege has led to acute ecological damage to the Bokek Stream in the Negev Desert.
The Bokek Stream is one of the few streams that flow year-round in the Negev and is home to a unique ecosystem, supporting a range of rare organisms. It is also a popular destination for 150,000 hikers of all ages each year, who enjoy walking in and along the waters as a main attraction in the Dead Sea’s Ein Bokek tourism area.
“The suit cites data indicating a 1,000% increase in the presence of salinity and other contaminants over the past few years that can be traced back to the factories in the Rotem plains,” said Prof. Alon Tal, the chairman of Tel Aviv University’s department of public policy, who is leading the effort.
“Measurements by the team of academics also showed high concentrations of radioactive materials, some exceeding Israeli drinking standards by over 800%,” he said.
The legal action alleges that the two factories, both subsidiaries of Israel Chemicals, released copious quantities of industrial wastes in the past that reached the Havurat Yehuda and Tatsurat Tsafit groundwater systems, which feed the Bokek Stream.
According to the suit, several government studies over the past decade confirm that billions of liters of water in the aquifer are contaminated due to inappropriate waste-management practices among the factories.
“Yet, in practice, no legal actions have ever been taken against the factories, and the polluting industries have never paid fines or restitution to the public,” said Tal.
Recently, the factories were involved in another highly publicized environmental disaster: a release of industrial wastes that decimated the ecological system along the Ashalim Stream, he added.
The suit also claims that for decades, the factories have avoided investing in environmental infrastructure, saving their corporation hundreds of millions of shekels at the expense of natural resources belonging to the public.
“The drop in the quality of the water and severe damage to one of the most unique ecosystems in the south of Israel gives me no rest,” Tal wrote in his affidavit to the court.
“I understood that although I have taught law and policy students the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle for 25 years, in practice, in Israel in 2018, the reality is different. It pays to pollute.”
The class action suit brings together several of the nation’s leading scientists.
Tel Aviv University Prof. Gedeon Dagan, Israel’s most vaunted hydrologist – and winner of the Israel Prize for Earth Sciences, as well as the only Israeli to win the Stockholm Water Prize (analogous to the Nobel Prize for hydrology) – prepared the hydrological expert opinion.
Tel Aviv biologist, Avital Gasith, Israel’s leading aquatic ecologist, prepared the report on the damage to the stream, and Prof. Nir Becker, the dean of social sciences at Tel Hai College, who is considered the country’s top environmental economist, calculated the damages caused by the pollution of the stream.
Becker’s assessment, prepared for the court, estimates some NIS 22 million in direct damage to the stream itself due to loss of ecosystem services, while the costs of pollution of an entire aquifer to the public was projected at NIS 488m.