Imagine this scenario. An old sewer line ruptures because tons of garbage gets piled on top of the ground above it. The sewer spews over 1 million gallons per day into the nearby river. As a result, the health agency closes miles of popular beaches to protect the public.
The closure continues for days, weeks and on to two months, yet no one repairs the broken sewer line despite the constant media attention and the outcry from beach-dependent businesses.
It may sound a bit like L.A. in the early 1980s, but this is Tel Aviv today.
The river is the infamous Yarkon and the sewer line collapse occurred about eight miles from the beach, in the small town of Or Yehuda. Infrastructure collapses are hardly restricted to the land of milk and honey. We’ve had more than our share. However, the response to the problem may be unique to Israel.
Over the last two months, the spill has resulted in little more than finger pointing. There’s a long list of government entities that claim that the responsibility for the sewer line breakage lies elsewhere. With money scarce, the approach of choice is blaming others while Tel Aviv’s miles of beaches remain closed.
In Los Angeles County, no sewage spill would last for more than a day. City or county sanitation district crews would respond immediately and work round the clock until the spill was repaired. In Israel, Or Yehuda blames a nearby town, arguing that the chicken processing facility piled up tons of chicken carcasses above the sewer.
Meanwhile, the Shav Dan sewer authority, which runs the massive sewage treatment plant south of the city, claims that Or Yehuda must fix the sewer. Tel Aviv, the area that suffers the economic consequences from a two-month beach closure, does not move to fix the sewer or even to provide extensive political pressure to repair the line. The public outcry from impacted businesses like hotels and fishing interests has largely been ignored.
At the national level, the Ministry of Health can only close the beach. They monitor about two times a week and analyze samples for fecal coliform densities before deciding to keep the closure signs up or take them down (I’m happy to report that they are finally going to monitor and make closure decisions based on enterococcus densities as early as this summer. Better late than never to follow long-standing EPA and World Health Organization guidelines).
The Ministry of Environment, Israel’s EPA equivalent, largely sits on the sidelines because it’s a local issue. The Yarkon River Authority, the Marine and Coastal Division, and the water sewage and streams division all claim they don’t have jurisdiction.
Inexplicably, the ministry’s so-called Green Police, as well as the Minister himself and his Director General did not seize leadership to solve the issue.
But there’s a ray of hope. The Ministry of the Environment finally acted this week to subpoena the potentially responsible parties to a hearing next week. Expect some action on sewer repair and the issuance of fines in the near future.
How could this happen? How does a nation with growing environmental consciousness and a critical tourism industry allow its beaches to be closed for two months? How come the environmental groups didn’t file a lawsuit within a week of the initiation of the spill? Didn’t Israel and Tel Aviv learn anything from the sewer line rupture and massive sewage spill in early 2003?
I spoke at length to environmental activists from the clean water group Zalul, the director of the Yarkon River Authority and a several environmental ministry staff members and their responses all point to the same answer. Somehow, it is more critical for the “right” entity to take responsibility for fixing the problem than to take the initiative at the risk of lost resources to actually fix the problem.
If Israel wants to move from environmental adolescence to maturity, this cultural M.O. must be replaced by a stronger enforcement mandate for the Ministry of Environment and clearer infrastructure repair responsibilities for the sewer authority.
Until then, multi-million gallon sewer spills with long beach closures will sadly be the norm.