Petros Karadjias  /  AP
Lebanese volunteers shovel out oil-stained sand at a public beach in Beirut last Sunday.
updated 9/21/2006 2:57:51 PM ET 2006-09-21T18:57:51

Shovel-wielding volunteers sifted through oil-stained sand on a beach where tourists once swam, now emptied by a massive spill caused by Israeli bombardment. Two months later, only 3 percent of the oil has been recovered.

“It’s going to take a year before it’s back to normal,” said Commander Christian Nedelec, the head of an eight-person French team that has been helping the Lebanese government clean up the slick.

Lebanon’s tourist and fishing industries remain battered by what has been described as the country’s worst-ever environmental catastrophe, which erupted when Israeli warplanes struck the Jiyeh power plant in mid-July, spilling up to 110,000 barrels of fuel oil into the clear Mediterranean waters.

Less than 3,500 barrels have been cleaned up. Lebanon couldn’t start any offshore operation for weeks, waiting for Israel to lift its naval and air blockade on Sept. 8.

Around two-thirds of Lebanon’s picturesque and rocky Mediterranean coast has been fouled by the oil slick, which extends about 95 miles and has reached Syria’s shoreline to the north.

“The timing is quite essential with an oil spill. The more you wait, the more it spreads,” said Luisa Colasimone of the United Nations Environment Program.

On Sunday, 20 volunteers were cleaning up the black gunk that tarred the 1.1-mile-long beach, Ramlat el-Baida — Arabic for “white sand.” The only public beach within about 60 miles of the capital, it is usually crowded with locals and tourists on summer weekends.

Cleaning to swim
Tarek Moukaddem, an 18-year-old student, has come six or seven times to help clean, traveling by bus from his hometown north of Beirut.

“I usually spend all my time here. I’m here to clean it so I can come here with my friends and swim next summer,” he said.

The airstrike at Jiyeh destroyed six fuel tanks at the plant. Israel said it hit the site, 12 miles south of Beirut, as part of a broader campaign against infrastructure used by Hezbollah guerrillas. Many Lebanese accuse it of hitting the station and other sites with few ties to Hezbollah simply to punish the country and force the government to take action against the guerrillas.

Israel insists the circumstances of the spill are unclear and it has not accepted responsibility.

“It’s not clear that Israel was directly responsible for the oil slick. We certainly did not intentionally attack the oil containers,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mark Regev.

Petros Karadjias  /  AP
Oil from the spill still covered this small port in Beirut last Sunday.
That explanation is of scant consolation to Mohamed Itani, a Beirut fisherman who not been out to sea in his boat since the spill, and is struggling to support his 7-year-old twin sons and his wife, who is expecting a third child.

The 35-year-old sat idly drinking tea, looking despondently at the thick, black sludge that has blocked the mouth of the small fishing port.

Along the length of Lebanon’s coast, usually visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, more than 30 sandy beaches and rocky coves are covered with oil.

Lebanon’s archaeological heritage also has suffered. Some 25 miles north of Beirut in the ancient Phoenician port city of Byblos, whose history stretches back 7,000 years, famous ruins were blackened by the slick.

The oil seeped into the foundation of the medieval harbor wall, staining the stones of the two ancient towers at the port’s entrance. U.N. experts warn that the site will have to be cleaned for 10 weeks with hand brushes — before winter to prevent permanent devastation.

Wildlife damage
It is marine life that could suffer the worst consequences, because in the Mediterranean, currents don’t come in enough often from the ocean to sweep away pollutants.

Lebanese waters are known as a passage for migrating schools of fish, particularly tuna. The oil, which sank to the bottom of the sea, where it threatens plants and fish that live on the sea floor, could resurface unless treated and contaminate the coast for years to come.

It could take up to 10 years for the ecosystem of the eastern Mediterranean to recover fully, according to the country’s environment minister, Yaacoub Sarraf.

Several Mediterranean countries including France, Spain and Italy have sent teams to help the Lebanese navy in coping with the oil spill, whose cleanup could cost $100 million.

Lebanon, meanwhile, plans to sue Israel for damages, though it has not said how much it will claim.

Rick Steiner, an American oil spill expert who worked on the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster and has been advising the Lebanese government, says Israel should pay $1 billion, including lost revenues from fishing and tourism.

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