Officers’ Responsibility for Ecological Disaster

Barnea Jaffa Lande & Co.
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About seven years ago, one of the worst ecological disasters in Israel’s history occurred. During work to divert an oil pipeline, one of the old pipelines belonging to the government company Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Co. Ltd. (EAPC) ruptured near the Evrona Nature Reserve. As a result, about five million liters of crude oil poured from the pipeline into the nature reserve located in the Arava Valley.

The spill caused serious land and water contamination, harmed the soil structure, reduced the availability of uncontaminated water in the vicinity, and destroyed microhabitats. The Ministry of Environmental Protection assessed the ecological damage caused to the land and to plant and animal species in the nature reserve as one of the worst environmental disasters ever to occur in Israel.

A special team of police investigators was formed in collaboration between the Police, Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Following a lengthy criminal investigation, the Attorney General’s Office recently filed an indictment against EAPC in respect of its responsibility for the oil spill in the nature reserve. Concurrently, four of EAPC’s officers (former and current) were indicted for their personal responsibility for the incident, each according to his or her share of accountability.

The indictment charges EAPC and its officers with negligent conduct, including, inter alia, violations of company procedures and safety regulations.

Findings

According to the investigation’s findings, the main causes for the engineering failure that resulted in the environmental disaster were the absence of detailed planning (while violating safety regulations and procedures) and faulty work performance. Essentially, the company acted without performing the requisite calculations and without coordinating the performance of engineering work of such magnitude with the competent authorities.

The defendants face charges for several offenses. These include water contamination under aggravated circumstances, dumping of waste containing a hazardous substance and littering of the public domain, breach of an officer’s duty to supervise and prevent violations of the Maintenance of Cleanliness Law, causing noxious or unreasonable odor, and breach of an officer’s duty to supervise and prevent violations of the Prevention of Hazards Law.

We note that EAPC faced a civil suit in recent years, which ended in a settlement about two years ago at the inclusive total of approximately ILS 100 million. (The compensation actually paid to date is far lower and reaches about ILS 32 million.) The purpose of the settlement agreement, as approved by the Be’er Sheva District Court, was to compensate the public, nature, and the plaintiffs; to rehabilitate the nature reserve; and to prevent future damages by EAPC.

Placing the issue of officers’ responsibilities for ecological disasters caused because of their negligence on the judicial agenda and these particular indictments constitute another significant step in advancing environmental law in Israel.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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