WADI ABU HINDI, West Bank (Ma’an) -- “They drank from the dark water, and then they died,” a Bedouin shepherd boy says of the putrid black liquid oozing from the ground.
Half a mile to the east, insects are devouring the carcasses of two animals – one sheep and a goat – rotting in a dry riverbed.
From the level of decomposition, it’s clear they died recently. What isn’t so clear is how, but a new environmental survey is turning up clues about toxins in the air and water here.
The area, Wadi Abu Hindi, is downstream from the busiest commercial waste site in the occupied West Bank, in a valley overshadowed on both sides by Israeli settlements.
The “dark water” is leachate, liquid produced by compression. Here, it refers to runoff from hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage crammed into a hilltop east of Jerusalem. Rainfall washes it down the less stable eastern slope, where it meets freshwater streams.
“This is very dangerous,” says Nader al-Khateeb, a sanitation expert and former chief engineer for the Bethlehem water authority, after reviewing photographs of the site for Ma'an. “It is highly, highly toxic. It could easily percolate into the groundwater,” al-Khateeb says.
He and other experts believe the liquid's presence in the valley reflects one of several engineering failures at the Abu Dis landfill, an Israeli dump site that processes trash from both sides of the Green Line.
So great is the threat that in 2011, Israeli authorities declared the facility unsalvageable and ordered it shuttered by 2013. Yet it remains a hive of activity today, blasting untreated methane into the air and runoff into the water of the valley below.
Amer Marei, a hydrogeologist at Al-Quds University, is leading the first comprehensive study on the environmental effects of these toxins on nearby residential areas.
Initial findings show carcinogen levels in both the water and the air that exceed World Health Organization standards and reach populations never previously thought to be at risk.
“If I am categorizing the problem, the biggest is air pollution,” Marei said Sunday during a visit to the site.
“Toxic gases emitted in the atmosphere, known as TVOCs, reach a maximum of 440 micrograms per cubic meter (of air)” in samples from Abu Dis, al-Ezariya and al-Sawahira al-Sharqiya. “At a rate of 1 microgram ... six per million would be expected to contract leukemia. So, multiply that by 440.”
The findings are new, and they have not been replicated outside Marei's lab. But he says the team's soil, air and water samples are being preserved for independent analysis, which he welcomes.
And experts uninvolved in the research say the findings fit with the facility's history of mismanagement by a company based in Maale Adumim settlement. The site was not prepared to host a landfill when construction began decades ago, and it lacks basic safeguards like concrete and asphalt.
Officials at Israel’s environmental protection ministry told Ma'an this week that they intend to eventually shut down the facility, citing similar safety and health concerns.
“The dump in Abu Dis causes serious environmental harm,” according to a September 2012 assessment by the ministry made available Thursday in an email.
The statement acknowledged that the facility's infrastructure "is not designed to prevent land pollution, and there are concerns that the groundwater might be polluted.”
But it offered no firm timetable for closing it down, and a spokesman was unable to produce one. He referred inquiries to Israel’s Jerusalem municipality, which was told to stop using the site by this month. A spokeswoman declined to confirm if the municipality was cooperating. Slideshow: Landfill threat to water in Bedouin village
Marei is hesitant to discuss the conflict with Israel, but he finds the lack of urgency troubling from an environmental perspective.
“My question for them is would they allow such a site to be built inside Israel? And would they let the situation that we see happening here happen there? I don't think they would.”
Nader al-Khateeb is the director and co-founder of a Palestinian environmental group that promotes coexistence with Israel, but he too has little patience for the internal political wrangling that permits the facility to continue operating when all involved are aware of the risks.
"Things get lost between who's responsible and who's not responsible. In the end, who pays the price? It is the Palestinian residents who are the victims," he says.
"The occupier should not use the occupied's land as a dumping site for their garbage."
Even though the site is in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank under full control of the Israeli military, both experts faulted the PA for its lack of attention to the crisis.
“The Palestinian environmental protection agency needs to take its responsibility in bringing the issue of this problem to the public and to the international community,” says Marei.
Al-Khateeb agrees: “We are not doing enough within our rights under international law and taking such cases to international courts to stop such practices.”
A spokesman for the Palestinian environmental protection agency did not return calls but a day after Ma'an TV raised the issue, health ministry vehicles were seen driving into Wadi Abu Hindi.
Like all visitors, they were greeted first by an uncovered reservoir the size of a swimming pool and filled with liquid collected from the landfill’s eastern side.
During rainstorms, this tank sometimes overflows into a riverbed and toward the Bedouin encampment. With enough rain, it can reach streams leading to the Jordan River.
Some residents of the Bedouin area find employment with the landfill, and they aren’t eager to talk on the record about the site's environmental footprint.
Away from the cameras, though, one father expressed fears about the polluted stream's effects on the community, particularly on the health of his young children.
“When it rains, it becomes like a blood river,” he said, pointing toward the valley.Mirna al-Atrash and May Issa contributed reporting.