Published on Saturday, July 29, 2006 by the New York Times
Casualties of War: Lebanon’s Trees, Air, and Sea
by Hassan M. Fattah
JIYEH, Lebanon, July 28 — As Israel continues the bombing campaign that has turned parts of Lebanon into rubble, environmentalists are warning of widespread and lasting damage.
Spilled and burning oil, along with forest fires, toxic waste flows and growing garbage heaps have gone from nuisances to threats to people and wildlife, they say, marring a country traditionally known for its clean air and scenic greenery. Many of Lebanon’s once pristine beaches and much of its coastline have been coated with a thick sludge that threatens marine life.
As smoke billowed overhead on Friday, turning day into dusk, Ali Saeed, a resident, recounted how war has changed this small industrial town about 15 miles south of Beirut.
Most people have left, he said. It is virtually impossible to drive on the roads, and almost everyone hides behind sealed windows.
“There’s nowhere to run,” Mr. Saeed said, showing off the black speckles on his skin that have turned everything white here into gray. “It’s dripping fuel from the sky.”
A large oil spill and fire caused by Israeli bombing have sent an oil slick traveling up the coast of Lebanon to Syria, threatening to become the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history and engulfing this town in smoke.
“The escalating Israeli attacks on Lebanon did not only kill its civilians and destroy its infrastructure, but they are also annihilating its environment,” warned Green Line, a Lebanese environmental group, in a statement issued Thursday. “This is one of the worst environmental crises in Lebanese history.”
The most significant damage has come from airstrikes on an oil storage depot at the edge of Jiyeh on July 13 and 15. Oil spewed into the Mediterranean Sea and a fire erupted that has been burning ever since.
Four of the plant’s six oil storage containers have burned completely, spilling at least 10,000 tons of thick fuel oil into the sea initially, and possibly up to 15,000 more in the weeks since. A fifth tank burst into flames on Thursday, residents said, adding to a smoke cloud that has spewed soot and debris miles away. The fire is so hot that it has melted rail cars into blobs and turned the sand below into glass.
Engineers are concerned that a sixth tank still untouched by the fire could soon explode, making the situation even graver.
The prevailing winds and currents have swept the oil northward up the coast of Lebanon, and on Friday it reached the coast of Syria, Environment Ministry officials said.
“You can’t swim in the water anymore, it’s all black,” Mr. Saeed said. “This is like the Exxon Valdez spill in America,” he said, speaking of the environmental damage caused when a tanker ran aground and spilled about 40,000 tons of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989.
Lebanon’s coast is an important nesting ground for the green sea turtle, an endangered species, as well as a spawning ground for some Mediterranean fish. Turtle eggs begin hatching in July, but with the oil slick coating most of the area, baby turtles will have a far smaller chance of making it to deeper waters and surviving, environmentalists say. The oil slick is also threatening bluefin tuna that migrate to the eastern Mediterranean this time of year.
The Environment Ministry sent crews to various parts of the country this week to assess the damage and begin the cleanup, a spokeswoman said. But the oil slick has quickly proven beyond the government’s limited capacity to deal with the problem.
The ministry estimates cleanup alone will cost upwards of $200 million, a major sum in a country with a gross domestic product of around $21 billion, but experts warn the bill could run even higher.
Jordan has offered to send experts to provide technical assistance, and Kuwait has pledged to send material and equipment to help clean up the spill.
Brush fires in many parts of the country have been an equally pressing concern as they rage unabated. Firefighters and forestry workers cannot move around for fear of being targets, and resources are being used to help refugees.
“In Israel there are planes taking care of forest fires, but in Lebanon these fires are not being extinguished or even noticed because our priorities have shifted from the environment to relief and humanitarian work,” said Mounir Abou Ghanem, director general of the Association for Forest Development and Conservation in Beirut.
Much of the budget for environmental protection and development has been sacrificed for relief work, he said. The oil spills, he said, will eventually be cleaned up and solid waste will be collected and disposed of when the war is over, but the forests are irreplaceable.
“In the end, who cares if a forest is on fire when there are people dying, others are being displaced and their houses or factories are on fire?” he said.
Water pollution has become an issue, too, said Karim el-Jisr, senior associate at Ecodit, a nongovernmental environmental association. Wastewater and freshwater canals are very close together and the many bombs that have hit roads and other infrastructure have damaged them. As a result, Mr. Jisr said, wastewater is contaminating the freshwater supply, especially in rural areas, causing further environmental degradation.
But experts warn that the real environmental impact of the war will not be clear until the fighting ends.
“This war will affect the soil and the air,” said Hala Ashour, the director of Green Line, the environmental group. “But it’s still too early to assess the actual damage because we have to analyze samples and that can’t be done before the war is over.”
In Jiyeh, Mr. Saeed and the few other remaining residents have begun learning to live with the pollution. Within the first few days of the oil fire, Mr. Saeed said, they wore masks to breathe; now, he said, they are used to it.
Maher Ali, 24, a fisherman, said: “When the winds blow north, it’s bearable, but when it blows east, it’s deadly. The soot lands on the food and furniture and makes everything dirty. You just can’t leave a glass of water sitting around. It’s no wonder most families have given up and left.”
Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut for this article.
© 2006 The New York Times Company