Massive Oil Spill a Vestige of Lebanon Conflict

Israel's bombing last month of a Lebanese power plant has caused the largest oil spill ever recorded in the eastern Mediterranean. The Lebanese government, aid agencies and volunteers are now trying to clean it up. But the spill of more than 10,000 tons of fuel oil has already killed birds, blackened the sand — and settled onto the sea bottom. Robert Siegel talks with Christopher Albritton, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The war between Hezbollah and Israel has caused broad damage to lives and homes and businesses, but it has also caused environmental damage. A large oil slick off the coast of Lebanon was triggered July 15 when Israeli jets bombed a coastal power station south of Beirut. As much as 15,000 tons of fuel oil poured into the Mediterranean. Since the cease-fire, efforts to contain and clean up this spill have not been easy.

Christopher Albritton, who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, has been covering the story in Lebanon and perhaps you can begin by describing what you've seen of this oil spill.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER ALBRITTON (San Francisco Chronicle): Well, I went down to two or three places. One of them was Ramlet al-Baida, which is the public beach in Beirut. It's on the southwest shore of the city. And the beach is just coated with stinking, black sand, and some places the petroleum oil has crusted into a black crunchy surface. There's not a bird to be seen. There is no sign of life whatsoever. The water is this kind of yellowish greenish noxious - it's absolutely disgusting and the smell is overpowering.

Up north of Beirut, in Biblos, where usually you have this charming old harbor with all these little fishing boats in there and fish restaurants that kind of rim the harbor, the harbor has become an oil sump basically. They've managed to get a lot of the oil into it and they're trying to pump all that stuff out right now, but it's heartbreaking to see. It's absolutely heartbreaking to see.

SIEGEL: How far has the oil spill actually spread?

Mr. ALBRITTON: Well, from according to satellite photos and other estimates, it's spread about 150 kilometers, which is about 93, 94 miles. It has passed the territorial waters of Lebanon and it is now up into Syrian territorial waters. And there is some worry that it might actually drift far enough north that it might enter Turkey territorial waters.

But right now, it seems that a lot of it - most of it seems to have either washed up on shore in Lebanon or it has sunk to the bottom of the seabed, where it's got a four to six inch thick layer of oil on the seabed right now.

SIEGEL: And the cause of all this was the Israeli bombing of the power station near Beirut?

Mr. ALBRITTON: Right. There were large - this is fuel oil, so it's actually heavier than crude oil and it's very hard to clean, and it was fuel for the power plant there. And they hit these two big tanks and the current basically took it north. All the oil, they took it north.

SIEGEL: Now how has the cease-fire and the Israeli blockade of Lebanon - how have those developments affected clean up of the oil slick?

Mr. ALBRITTON: Well, nothing happened during the war. I mean it took 34 days before anyone could start to do anything. And then the Environmental Ministry here decided they need aerial surveys. They needed to know what the extent of the damage was. So they would really block some of the local NGOs who were trying to kind of get in there and do this shovel and spade kind of back-breaking work, they would actually send the police in and shoo the local volunteers away from the beaches.

It was only last week that the U.N. got permission to do aerial surveys to see the extent of the damage. They could see just how much needs to be cleaned, what needs to be done, what equipment needs to be brought in, etcetera. And the first of those aerial flights happened today.

SIEGEL: And this spill, by the standards of the Eastern Mediterranean, is historic, I gather.

ALBRITTON: It's the largest in recorded history. And with 15,000 tons of fuel oil, it could rival the Valdez in Alaska in terms of its size. And what is unprecedented is the amount of time that has elapsed in taking care of the spill. Usually, when you have a spill, people are on the ground within 72 hours - or in the water, as the case may be.

In this case it took 34 days before anyone was able to get anything going and they're still very minor attempts at cleaning up right now. I mean, we still got a blockade in Lebanon. It's still difficult for equipment from Spain, France, Norway, etcetera, to get in to the country because Lebanon just doesn't really have the equipment to deal with this kind of a spill and the Environmental Ministry is frankly overwhelmed.

SIEGEL: Well, Christopher Albritton, thank you very much for talking with us.

ALBRITTON: Thank you Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Christopher Albritton, who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and for other newspapers from Lebanon.

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