The sand along the public beach in south Beirut is blackened and stained.
The sea, normally a rich azure, is a noxious yellowish green. The water reeks
of petroleum. All the fish are dead; there is not a single bird in the sky.
These are the scars of the Lebanese oil spill, triggered July 15 when
Israeli jets bombed the power station at Jiyeh, 18 miles south of Beirut.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 tons of heavy fuel oil spilled into the Mediterranean
Sea and began flowing north. After six weeks, the slick has spread an estimated
90 miles north and now could threaten the coastal waters of Syria and Turkey.
An oil-covered crab at Tabarja, north of Beirut, is among the wildlife casualties resulting from the enormous spill. (Greenpeace photo by Jeroen Oerlemans via Reuters)
And it's getting worse.
Some of the oil has washed up on the Lebanese shoreline or sunk to the
seabed in a layer up to 4 inches thick, according to a video shot by Lebanese
divers and released by Greenpeace.
Byblos, a UNESCO World Heritage site 22 miles north of Beirut, is a pretty
tourist village with remains dating back 7,000 years that is considered by some
scholars to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Seafood
restaurants that depend on the sea for fresh fare rim its harbor, which is
dominated by a 13th century Crusader castle. But the harbor is now an oil sump,
with thick black liquid leaving its mark at the waterline on the stones of the
Just down the coast, Eddé Sands, one of the most popular beach resorts in
the region, is closed until next summer -- a crushing blow for a
In the Palm Islands Nature Reserve just off the coast near Tripoli,
nesting grounds for sea turtles have been inundated with oil. The turtles had
already laid their eggs by the time the Israelis began bombing. When the baby
turtles hatch, they will have to crawl through an oil slick to get to the
"We've never had an environmental disaster like this in Lebanon," said
Tarek Moukkaddem, a volunteer from Tripoli who had come to help clean up the
Beirut beaches. He and his friend, Alan Alameddine, were taking a break from
shoveling sand into large piles on Ramlet al-Baida, a public beach on the
southwest flank of the city. Beside them, a large bulldozer stood idle.
Moukkaddem said volunteers and environmental groups such as Green Line had
encountered nothing but obstacles from the Lebanese Environment Ministry. The
ministry has only just begun issuing permits needed for cleanup projects to
begin, and it had not yet sent its own employees to help get the job done,
The work is backbreaking and urgent. Almost no action was taken while the
war continued, and the oil has coated the coastline for miles, killing marine
life and turning beaches into health hazards.
As oil emulsifies, it becomes more viscous and harder to recover from sand
and soil. Tidal action is depositing oil farther from the waterline.
"I was down on the coast here in Beirut," Professor Rick Steiner, from the
University of Alaska Marine Advisory Program, who was advising the Ministry of
the Environment, told Reuters. "Everything on it -- limpets, invertebrate
fauna, algae, fish, crabs, mussels -- it was all dead."
Ministry spokeswoman Ghada Mitri blamed the Israeli attacks and continuing
sea blockade for the delay in getting the cleanup started, adding that
extensive study, including aerial surveys, was needed before work could get
"Lebanon is still under siege," said Mitri. "We need permission for any
The Israelis gave the United Nations permission Aug. 21 -- a full week
after the cease-fire went into effect -- to conduct aerial surveys of the
damage. Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for the U.N. Environment Program, said a team
in Beirut was planning to do three or four flyovers to get a better idea of
where the oil is. He said the current best guess is that 20 percent has
evaporated and 80 percent has washed up on Lebanon's shore, sunk to the sea
bottom or remained suspended in the water.
"It's pretty unprecedented for an oil spill of this size to wait so many
weeks before actions had been taken," Nuttall said.
The ministry estimates it will cost $150 million over the next year to
clean up the spill. Mitri defended the decision to delay beginning the cleanup
on grounds that it took until Thursday to arrange a place to store the oil and
dirty sand that would be recovered. And because of the Israeli bombing, many
roads and bridges in the country had been destroyed, she added.
"Do we have the resources, do we have the people, the space, the roads,
the tractors and trailers and (trucks) to move all this stuff around?" she
asked. She admitted that the ministry was overwhelmed by the scale of the
disaster and that "getting everything up and running is taking time."
The delay is infuriating environmental groups, which see the need for
urgent action. "Every day we lose, part of the oil will not be recovered, and
it will enter the food system and the marine life," said Wael Hmaidan,
coordinator for Green Line's Oil Spill Working Group.
Steiner said, "It appears that the marine and coastal ecosystem is more
contaminated than first thought." He has advised governments on oil spills,
including the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, and he told Reuters news service
that this spill was one of the worst he'd seen.
He has put together a cleanup plan divided into three phases. A
rapid-response plan for the rest of August would focus on shoreline cleaning at
Byblos, Ramlet al-Baida, the area around Jiyeh and the Palm Island reserves.
The rest of 2006 and 2007 would be concerned with expanded beach cleaning,
including rock washing, an effort to remove any recoverable oil on the sea
surface. The final phase would address seabed contamination.
The health effects of the spill could be dire. Thousands of families on
the Lebanese coast depend on fishing for their primary food supply, but
surviving fish may contain hydrocarbons and other carcinogens.
The economic effects of the spill go far beyond the immediate coastline.
More than 1.6 million tourists had been expected to visit this year --
bringing in $4.4 billion, said Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis. The economy had
been growing between 5 and 6 percent because of the tourism boom.
"Unfortunately, the war stopped everything," he said.
Tourism accounts for about 12 percent of Lebanon's economy, and seaside
resorts and restaurants accounted for more than half of that. "Without the sea,
it would reduce the attraction of Lebanon," Sarkis said. "It might take between
one and two years to clean."
Lebanon has about 200 beaches and all have been affected, he said. He said
resorts such as Eddé Sands and the Movenpick, both of which declined to comment
for this article, have all been affected, and many will remain closed for an
unknown period of time.
"Over the longer term, one year, two years, three years, unless this is
cleaned up, unless the oil is taken out of the sand and pebbles, there's always
going to be a question mark as to whether this is a holiday destination spot to
go to," echoed Nuttall of the United Nations.
At a meeting in Athens on Aug. 17, the International Maritime Organization
and the U.N. Environment Program agreed to spend an initial $64.4 million on
cleanup and containment of the spill. Nuttall said equipment from Spain, France
and other countries bordering on the Mediterranean was en route to the spill
And Green Line has finally gotten permission to start the cleanup at
Ramlet al-Baida. Hmaidan said they were able to bulldoze the sand into piles
ready to be trucked away by the ministry. From there, Mitri said, the sand can
either be reused in another industry, stored or cleaned and returned. The
latter is the preferred solution, but she said the equipment and expertise do
not exist yet in Lebanon.
"The beach is bad, but this is the case with 100 kilometers (62 miles) of
Lebanese coastline," said Hmaidan. "This is the biggest environmental disaster
in the history of the eastern Mediterranean."
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle