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Israel mystery spill was ‘tank washing not terrorism’, says IOPC head

Still no conclusive proof which vessel was behind country’s worst ecological disaster in decades, but Israeli suggestions of deliberate act by Iran appear wide of the mark

‘There is nothing that suggests terrorism … It is clear that the damage was caused by a tanker. But we are unable to identify the ship,’ confirms Gaute Sivertsen

NO RESPONSIBILITY has been established for the mystery oil spill in Israeli waters last year, and the incident is more likely down to tank washing than the deliberate act of Iranian environmental terrorism previously claimed by the Israeli government, according to the head of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds.

Director Gaute Sivertsen made his remarks as part of a wide-ranging interview with Lloyd’s List on Wednesday, discussing the work of the oil-industry body that acts as the top-level insurer for tanker spills.

Sessions of the IOPC Funds’ governing bodies held on 29 and 30 March officially accepted that the incident constituted a so-called ‘mystery spill’.

Under the 1992 Civil Liability and Fund Conventions, that conclusion obliges the funds to pick up Israel’s tab for clean-up costs and economic damage, up to a maximum of $295m.

As of the dates of the sessions, 27 claims totalling around £2m ($2.6m) had been tabled, with further claims expected. The Israeli government is still working on its claim.

But Mr Sivertsen added: “There is nothing that suggests terrorism. It looks like there has been tank washing, which is not entirely uncommon, unfortunately.

“It is clear that the damage was caused by a tanker. But we are unable to identify the ship.

“We still continue to investigate to see if we can find the actual ship. But the evidence we have so far is not enough to go to court.”

The spill occurred in early February 2021, when several thousand tonnes of crude oil were dumped in Israeli economic waters.

The incident was described as Israel’s worst ecological disaster in decades, depositing 1,360 tonnes of tar balls over more than 100 miles of Mediterranean coastline in both Israel and Lebanon.

Initial suspicion focused on Minerva Helen (IMO: 9276561), a 2004-built 103,643 dwt unit operated by leading Greek tanker outfit Minerva Marine Incorporated, which denied any involvement. But the ship was exonerated after an on-board inspection while alongside in Piraeus.

Israel’s then-environmental protection minister Gila Gamliel subsequently attributed blame to Emerald (IMO: 9231224), a Panama-flagged 2002-built 112,697 dwt tanker laden with 90,000 tonnes of Iranian crude bound for Syria.

The aframax was entered with the UAE-based Islamic P&I Club, a little-known P&I insurer outside the International Group. Beneficial ownership was believed to rest with Lebanese entity Oryx Corp via a Marshall Islands-registered brass plate company.

Ms Gamliel took to Twitter to proclaim: “Iran is initiating terrorism not only with nuclear weapons and efforts to entrench itself on our borders. Iran is initiating terrorism by harming the environment.”

She subsequently lost office when the administration of Benjamin Netanyahu was replaced by the administration of new prime minister Naftali Bennett.

Mr Sivertsen commented: “In the beginning, Israel thought it could have been the result of a terrorist act carried out by Iran.

“However, they looked at different tankers, they looked at AIS, they looked at satellite imagery and narrowed it down to four potential tankers, which they then investigated further.”

While the results of the investigations point to one potential culprit, there is no conclusive evidence. The Israeli authorities agree that the evidence is insufficient to go to court, and the IOPC Funds will therefore pay out on a mystery spill basis, he confirmed.

The full Lloyd’s List interview with Mr Sivertsen will be published at a later date.

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