Oil Slick Threatens Lebanese Coast

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Tons of oil spilled into the Mediterranean sea after Israeli warplanes bombed storage tanks near Beirut in the first days of the conflict. Environmentalists worry that if the slick isn't contained soon it could damage the fragile ecosystem.


Israeli warplanes renewed strikes against Beirut's southern suburbs today for the first time in nearly a week. And thousands of Israeli troops continued their ground push against Hezbollah guerillas in southern Lebanon. The war has left much of Lebanon's south in rubble and forced hundreds of thousands of people to search for safety.

The war has also had environmental consequences. An Israeli strike on an oil depot three weeks ago has caused thousands of tons of oil to spill into the Mediterranean Sea and foul the country's beaches. Lebanese officials say it is one of the worst environmental crises in the country's history.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

(Soundbite of ocean waves)


On any other warm summer day, the white sandy beaches here around Jieh - a resort town about 15 miles south of Beirut - would be packed with sun worshippers. Not now.

(Soundbite of ocean waves)

NORTHAM: Three weeks ago, Israeli warplanes hit an oil storage depot on the outskirts of Jieh. Four of the tanks caught on fire. The choking plume of black smoke billows into the air from the one tank that's still burning. Another of the tanks was ruptured, and more than 15,000 tons of thick fuel oil spilled into the Mediterranean Sea. Now it started washing ashore.

Joseph Mahsoud(ph) owns a resort just south of the storage tanks. He looks at the pall of smoke nearby, then points to the sludge about three-feet broad that's now covering the beach next to his business.

Mr. JOSEPH MAHSOUD (Jieh Resort Owner): (Through Translator) The fuel is all over the water and the beach and the sand. The fish in the water are dead. My business is gone.

NORTHAM: The oil slick that's hit Jieh's beaches is being pushed by wind and currents northward to Beirut and beyond.

Mr. WAHAL HAMAYDIN(ph) (Environmentalist, Green Line): This is a map. We did some mapping a few days ago. We went by land and went along the shore. This is the best map now available on this issue, but we are updating it constantly.

NORTHAM: Wahal Hamaydin is with Green Line, a Lebanese group of environmentalists focusing on this oil spill. Hamaydin says that the oil slick has hit more than 40 percent of Lebanon's beaches, affecting a fragile ecosystem and marine life. Turtles are particularly vulnerable.

Mr. HAMAYDIN: And about this time, sea turtle's eggs start to hatch. So baby sea turtles get out of the nest on sandy beaches and try to make their way into the sea. Now, in Jieh area, it's a huge sandy beach covered from beginning to end by oil. It is full of turtle nests now that are going to hatch, and they're all going to die. All of them.

NORTHAM: Hamaydin says the slick has also hit some fish species which spawn near rocky areas. Each day that goes by, more areas are affected. The problem is getting help. Kuwait has already donated some equipment. Jordan has offered more. But the problem is getting access. No boats are allowed into the area, and Israeli bombs have destroyed the highways. Equipment would have to move through towns along the narrow, twisting roads of the Shuf Mountains. The detours add hours to the journey.

Achim Steiner, the executive director of the U.N.'s Environment Program, says it's crucial to get help into the area now.

Mr. ACHIM STEINER (Executive Director, U.N. Environment Program): Our greatest concern right now is that access to the area is facilitated because every day that passes will make it more difficult to deal with the clean up operation, and also its impact on shore as oil seeps into the sands on the beaches.

NORTHAM: But Steiner says experts from the U.N. or any country will not come to Lebanon because of the security situation. In the meantime, the oil slick is continuing to move through the Mediterranean.

Yacoub al-Sarraf, Lebanon's environment minister, says the oil has already hit the Syrian coastline.

Mr. YACOUB Al-SARRAF (Environment Minister, Lebanon): I cannot be optimistic about the ordeal that the eastern Mediterranean is going to deal with - not only Lebanon. And now we are throwing an appeal not only for Lebanon. We're throwing an appeal to try to prevent our neighboring countries from being hit the same way we were.

NORTHAM: Sarraf estimates it will cost about $200 million to clean up the oil slick, a number he says will continue to rise until some - any - help arrives.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Beirut.

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