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Lebanon: Spill of 10,000 tons of fuel oil into the Mediterranean Sea

from Indymedia Beirut - 27.07.2006 02:41

At least 10,000 tons of heavy fuel oil have been spilled into the Lebanese sea, causing an environmental catastrophe with severe effects on health, biodiversity and tourism, environmentalists and the Environment Ministry said Wednesday. 15,000 tons are expected to leak into the Mediterranean from another tank that is still burning. Two weeks ago, Israeli bombs targeted the Jiyye power station, located on the coast 30 kilometers south of Beirut. Part of the oil in storage tanks has been burning ever since and the other part is leaking into the Mediterranean.

"The pollution has affected around 70 to 80 kilometers of both public and private rocky and sandy beaches from Damour, south of Beirut, through to Chekka in the North," Berge Hadjian, the Environment Ministry's director general said Wednesday. Another 15,000 tons of oil are expected to leak into the sea, he added. The expected 15,000 tons are from a 25,000-ton burning tank that has burned away 10,000 already.

The ministry has issued a report that included a warning for the citizens to stay away from polluted sites along the coast.

Map of the oil spill
Map of the oil spill

On 13 July 2006, at 4:23 a.m. Jieh power utility located 30 Km South of Beirut directly on the coastline was hit by Israeli bombs. Part of the storage tanks caught fire and are still burning 10 days on. The fuel that did not catch on fire was spilled into the Mediterranean Sea as a result of the blast.

Due to winds blowing South West to North East and water current movement the oil spill was partly carried out to sea and partly dispersed along the coast of Lebanon. So far it has affected 70 – 80 km of both public and private rocky and sandy beaches along the Lebanese coast including public and private marinas/ports for boats/ships of fishermen from the Damour region south of Beirut through to Chekka in the North.

It is also possible that the Israeli war frigate that was hit by a missile might have spilled some diesel oil.

Lebanese Government’s Response

Once the initial assessment was completed, the Ministry of Environment contacted the Kuwaiti and Jordanian Governments for assistance. The Jordaina Government is ready to send experts from the Akaba Area in Jordan to Lebanon to provide technical assistance. The Environment Public Authority in Kuwait is ready to send to Lebanon about 3 containers of material and equipment for fighting such a spill. The private sector in Lebanon that has less than modest capacity was also contacted. Minimal amounts of dispersants, booms, adsorbents, and skimmers are readily available; however, only enough for spills from tankers that are delivering fuel at ports or similar cases. They are not equipped for major environmental accidents (oil spills). REMPEC-MAP UNEP at the United Nations Environment Programme has also been contacted; however, they have provided minimal assistance untill now.

Reports detailing what was found were sent to the Lebanese Higher Relief Council and the Council of Ministers detailing the crisis and suggesting potential solutions. A pilot cleanup was speedily approved and carried out on the 24th of July at the Sporting Club – Ras-Beirut site. This site is facing technical difficulties due to a multitude of factors. Another cleanup was commissioned in the North of Lebanon at the Saint Antoine Sandy Beach Resort and is making modest success.

A complete oil spill cleanup operation will cost in the range of tens of millions of euros and will span a long period of time.

The Ministry of Environment continues getting in touch with its partners and seeking legal, technical, & financial assistance from available Funds designated for such oil spills in the Mediterranean Sea. It also continues to monitor the situation and is reviewing operational responses and clean up programmes in addition to preparing contingency plans for impact assessment.

As this update is prepared, a team of officers from the Ministry are heading towards the North to scope out the oil spill impact on the beaches and shores of the North. We aim to assess the Southern coastline South of the Damour area as soon as cease fire is called and when safe passage to the South is ensured.

The Ministry of Environment asks the Lebanese community to assist it in its work and has prepared a Ministerial brief along these lines.

Some Impacts on the Environmental

· The marine ecosystem (fish species) is active in the summer and has been adversely affected, but the degree of damage cannot be estimated at this point in time. Thankfully, the bird migratory season had recently ended and therefore the numbers of birds effected is expected to be low.

· A small percentage of the heavy fuel oil might have evaporated due to exposure to the elements and does not have a lasting effect.

· A small percentage of the oil might be naturally decomposing because of the natural biodegradation process.

· A large percentage of the spill has emulsified and solidified along the Lebanese shore, clinging to sand, rock and stone as the following pictures will show.

· Some of the biological impacts after an oil spill can include:

o Physical and chemical alteration of natural habitats such as when oil is incorporated into sediments

o Physical smothering effect on the marine life

o Lethal or sub-lethal toxic effects on the marine life

o Changes in the marine ecosystem resulting from oil effects on key organisms e.g. increased abundance of intertidal algae following the death of limpets which normally eat the algae.

Impacts on Human Health

Some possible short term adverse effects might include nausea, headaches and skin (dermatological) problems in residents living close to the effected areas or in beach goers getting in touch with the oil.

Plant crops and animal products from coastal farms close to the oil spill sites might have to be tested for hydrocarbon content to be declared safe for consumption.

The Ministry does not advise fishing off the quays and wharfs found along the coast from Jieh to Heri-Chekka until the complete scope of pollution is assessed.

Impacts on Tourism

The tourism industry has badly suffered. The acute impact of the war on this industry has been immediately felt by the nation. The chronic impact of the oil spill is disastrous on the tourism industry due to the length of time it is going to take for the clean up of the sand, the rocks, the shallow reef and the marine ecosystem as a whole.

Many public and private beaches have been heavily affected including boats/ships of fishermen and yachts and boats of tourists from all over the Arab world and the Mediterranean countries as well as boats of Lebanese nationals.

Beach-based tourism was a major economic activity in Lebanon and constituted a major part of the Lebanon’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Impacts on Biodiversity & the Fishing Industry

It is not possible at this moment to evaluate the impact on biodiversity because of the need of more detailed technical assessments carried out under safe national conditions.

The siege on Lebanon by the Israeli army has prevented the Lebanese fishermen from going about their daily work. This oil spill has added to their crisis by destroying the immediate marine habitat of the fish species off the coast. However, it is well documented in the literature that the concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons will be elevated above background concentrations over a substantial area. Biodiversity will surely suffer as in Lebanon it is highly concentrated on the coastline.

Other Shoreline Impacts

The Lebanese coastline is made up of mainly rocky shores. The initial estimates show that the mortality of limpets and other herbivores is high. Further detailed studies need to be carried out to assess the true scale of the damage.

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