Emerges On Lebanon Coast
By Christopher Allbritton
28 August 28, 2006
The San Francisco Chronicle
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.
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
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 castle.
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 tourism-based economy.
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 water.
"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 started.
"Lebanon is still under
siege," said Mitri. "We need permission for any movement."
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 region.
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