One Year On, War Pollution Still Stains Lebanon's Shores

by VR Sreeraman on August 8, 2007 at 12:57 PM
One Year On, War Pollution Still Stains Lebanon's Shores

Thick, black oil still clings to the rocks at the bottom of the seabed, an ugly and forgotten legacy of Israel's war against Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah last summer.

All along the stony beach of Amchit, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Beirut, every nook and cranny is stained black and effluent washes ashore from a nearby industrial plant, caught up in the sticky flow.


It seems a world away from the glitzy tourist resort, traditional fishing port and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Byblos just five kilometres down the coast.

Here the sand and pebble beaches have been cleaned up in an effort to bring things back to normal, sparking accusations of unfair prioritising by environmentalists.

"Thirty kilometres of coast north of Byblos have not been cleaned. Historic and tourist sites have been privileged, but nowhere else," says Fifi Kallab from the environmental group Byblos Ecologia.

But even at Byblos, appearances can be deceptive. On an artificial sandbank not two paces away from the bathers, dozens of cans of heating oil lie dumped, some of them broken and spilling out a black and shiny discharge under the sun.

All of Lebanon is still grappling with the environmental devastation wrought by last year's month-long bombardment by Israeli forces in their war against Hezbollah.

In the worst single incident, Israel bombed an electricty generating station at Jiye, south of Beirut, last July, sending 15,000 tonnes of oil into the sea -- the most severe oil slick ever seen in the eastern Mediterranean.

One year on, Lebanon's Environment Ministry says that 60 to 70 percent of the oil spread out over 150 kilometres of coastline has been cleaned up, but it admits that 26 rocky sites have not yet been touched.

Many of these sites lie north of Beirut, in a 30 kilometre stretch between Byblos and Enfe. The clean-up work is being financed to the tune of 4.7 million dollars by the US government's international development agency, which admits the daunting and long-term nature of the work.

"Oil spill cleaning is not something that can be done overnight, it takes years. We are aware that the job is not finished," says an official from USAID on condition of anonymity.

He admits that work did stop over winter, but insists this is in line with standard practice to allow natural processes and rhythms to take their course.

"During phase one, from October to December, we set two priorities: sites which have an economic, historical, touristic impact, such as Byblos, then industrial sites with no human contacts.

"Now we are preparing to launch phase two. We did an assessment, we have a new list of sites that need pressure washing," the official says.

As for benighted Amchit beach, he insists that it has not been forgotten but concedes that more needs to be done.

"We removed big concentrations of oil there, we know it needs more cleaning and the rocks need pressure cleaning."

This is not enough to satisfy environmentalists who highlight the dangers to both the ecosystem and the population who continue to fish and bathe in polluted waters.

"Large areas of the Lebanese coast are still severely polluted as if there were no cleanup activities there. Although about a thousand tons of oil and waste were removed, the waste is still on site, endangering the ecosystem while awaiting treatment," said US scientist Richard Steiner from the University of Alaska, on a recent visit to the country.

"Cleanup should be resumed to the rocky areas using high pressure hot water or steam," he urged.

Lebanon's government has proposed sending the waste to be treated abroad, but ecologists say this will be too expensive, at a cost of between 13,000 and 17,000 dollars per tonne.

"We proposed different solutions which would allow the waste to be treated in Lebanon, but these were rejected by the ministry," says Mohammed Sarji from the Bahr Loubnan (Sea of Lebanon) association, which cleaned the beaches south of Beirut.

And while politicians and ecologists haggle, oil continues to pollute the shoreline -- a lasting reminder of the toxic stains of war.

Source: AFP
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