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Environmental Disaster Looms
Published on Friday, August 4, 2006 by the Associated Press
Environmental Disaster Looms
Oil spill threatens Mediterranean after power plant hit
Cleanup along Lebanon's coast can't begin until fighting ends
by Bassem Mroue
 

BEIRUT Endangered turtles die shortly after hatching from their eggs. Fish float dead off the coast. Flaming oil sends waves of black smoke toward the city.

In this country of Mediterranean beaches and snow-capped mountains, Israeli bombing that caused an oil spill has created an environmental disaster. And cleanup can't start until the fighting stops, the United Nations said.


Pools of oil disfigure a beach in the bay of Byblos, 42 kms north of Beirut. Lebanon's greens launched an international appeal for help to combat an environmental crisis caused by a huge oil spill south of Beirut, more than two weeks into an Israeli air war.(AFP/File/Nicolas Asfouri)
World attention has focused on the hundreds of people who have died in the three-week-old conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. The environmental damage has attracted little attention but experts warn the long-term effects could be devastating.

Some 110,000 barrels of oil poured into the Mediterranean two weeks ago after Israeli warplanes hit a coastal power plant. One tank is still burning, sending clouds of thick black smoke across Lebanon.

Compounding the problem is an Israeli naval blockade and continuing military operations that have made any cleanup impossible.

"The immediate impact can be severe but we have not been able to do an assessment," said Achim Steiner, executive director of United Nations Environment Program, in Geneva. "But the longer the spill is left untreated, the harder it will be to clean up."

The oil has slicked about one third of Lebanon's coast, an 80-kilometre stretch centred on the Jiyeh plant, about 20 kilometres south of Beirut, Lebanese Environment Minister Yaacoub Sarraf said. It has also drifted out into the Mediterranean, already hitting neighbouring Syria.

Experts warn that Cyprus, Turkey and even Greece could be affected.

Sarraf said Israeli planes "purposely hit the tanks which are the closest to the sea," and knocked out the berms designed to prevent any ruptured tanks from flowing into the waters.

"As long as there is no ceasefire and as long as we don't have access to the sea, not only can we not start the treatment but we cannot even access or get the data which is essential," Sarraf said. "Chances are, our whole marine ecosystem facing the Lebanese shoreline is already dead. What is at stake today is all marine life in the eastern Mediterranean."

Israel's Environmental Affairs ministry in Jerusalem declined comment, referring questions to the Foreign Ministry, which did not immediately return phone calls.

Lebanon, whose flag features a cedar tree and which is known by many as Green Lebanon for its forested mountains, is one of the few countries in the Arab world that pays attention to pollution. Mini-buses that run on diesel have been banned, while factories are forced to abide by strict rules.

Now, large parts of the country's sandy and rocky beaches, visited in the past by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, are covered with thick black layers of oil. Many fishermen have been forced out of business, and people are getting scared to eat any fish at all. Baby turtles, usually born in late summer, die after they swim into the polluted water shortly after hatching from eggs.

Syria was already experiencing similar problems, said Hassan Murjan, who heads the environment department in the Syrian city of Tartous.

"The oil pollution has caused serious environmental damage because our coast is rocky and this is very dangerous for marine life," Murjan told the official news agency SANA.

The first country to rush and help Lebanon was Kuwait, which suffered a similar disaster during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But three truckloads of cleanup supplies the country sent in are stuck in Beirut, with crews waiting for the fighting to wane before beginning their work, said Beirut's mayor, Abdel Monem Ariss.

"We have no access to Lebanon territorial waters," Sarraf said. "This means we are already 10 days delayed and in terms of oil pollution, 10 days is a century."

Three local environmental organizations demanded a ceasefire to no avail.

"Cleanup operations should start as soon as possible otherwise most of the damage will be irreversible," warned Wael Hmaidan, head of the assessment group on the ground. "The more time we allow the oil to settle into the sand, rocks and seabed, the harder it will be to clean it up."

Sarraf estimated it will cost between $34 million and $57 million to clean up the shorelines, and possibly 10 times that much for the entire effort. Optimistic assessments suggest it will take at least six months for the shore cleanup and up to 10 years for "the re-establishment of the ecosystem of the eastern Mediterranean as it was two weeks ago," he said.

In Geneva, the UNEP's Steiner said the agency has teams on standby to move to Lebanon as soon as the conditions permit.

"Oil and marine diversity do not mix well," Steiner said. "We are immediately concerned for marine life in the area."

Sarraf likened the disaster to the Erika spill off France in 1999, when the oil tanker split in two and dumped 70,000 barrels of oil into the Atlantic that washed up along 400 kilometres of French shoreline.

But this case carries the added problem of the burning tank, smoke from which has reached Beirut, he said.

© 2006 Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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