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 snowcapped mountains, Israeli bombing that caused an oil spill has created an environmental disaster. And cleanup cannot start until the fighting stops, the U.N. says.
World attention has focused on the hundreds of people who have died in the 3-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 thick black smoke across the country.
Compounding the problem is an Israeli naval blockade and continuing military operations that have made any cleanup impossible. And environmental officials say the longer the problem is allowed to go unchecked, the greater the lasting damage.
“The immediate impact can be severe but we have not been able to do an immediate assessment,” said U.N. Environment Program executive director Achim Steiner in Geneva. “But the longer the spill is left untreated, the harder it will be to clean up.”
Turkey, Greece could be affected
The oil so far has slicked about one-third of Lebanon’s coast, a 50-mile stretch centered on the Jiyeh plant 12 miles south of Beirut, said the country’s environment minister, Yaacoub Sarraf. It has also drifted out into the Mediterranean, already hitting neighboring Syria.
Experts warn 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 sending oil flowing into the waters.
“Chances are, our whole marine ecosystem facing the Lebanese shoreline is already dead,” Sarraf said. “What is at stake today is all marine life in the eastern Mediterranean.”
Israel’s Environmental Affairs ministry 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. Minibuses that run on diesel have been banned, while factories are forced to abide by strict rules.
‘Very dangerous for marine life’
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 oil. Many fishermen have been forced out of business, and people are getting scared to eat fish. 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 help to Lebanon was Kuwait, which suffered a similar disaster during the 1991 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 work, said the capital’s mayor, Abdel Monem Ariss.
“We have no access to Lebanon territorial waters,” Sarraf said. “This means that we are already 10 days delayed and in terms of oil pollution, 10 days is a century.”
Three local environmental organizations demanded a cease-fire 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.”
$30-$50 million to clean up
Sarraf estimated it will cost $30 million to $50 million to clean up the shorelines, and possibly ten 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 reestablishment 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 a spill off France in 1999, when an oil tanker split in two and dumped 70,000 barrels of oil into the Atlantic. But he said this case is complicated by the burning tank and the inability of cleanup crews to begin work.
“We are facing a much more critical problem, he said. “I say imagine you having your kid sick, knowing that he is sick, and not being able to bring a physician to examine him and to know what is the disease before you start treating him. This is what we are facing.”