Power Plant Airstrike Leaves a Noxious Mess

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

BEIRUT, July 31 -- The fires continued to burn Monday at a seaside power plant, the source of 15,000 tons of heavy fuel oil that spilled into pristine Mediterranean waters after an Israeli attack two weeks ago. The resulting slick has fouled close to 50 miles of beaches and rocky coastline, and threatens aquatic life and the fishing industry.

Emergency teams at the Jiyah plant on the southern Lebanon coast are allowing oil to burn, sending up towering plumes of black smoke, in an effort to prevent further spills into the sea. But it is too late for the coastline from Damour in the south to the prime beach district of Amchit and Byblos north of the capital.

"This is a catastrophe of the highest order for a country as small as Lebanon," said Berge Hatjian, director general of Lebanon's Environment Ministry, who has visited the scene to oversee emergency steps.

The smelly black tar has disrupted the season not only for Lebanon's fancy swimming and yachting clubs, fashioned after resorts in the French Riviera and Acapulco, but also for ordinary citizens. Beaches in the capital, normally crowded at this time of the year, are deserted in the face of wave-swept oil marring white sand.

Shiny pools of black the consistency of molten licorice lap against boats and yachts anchored in marinas.

"We are really talking about an environmental massacre here, with about 15,000 tons of heavy fuel oil," said Edgard Chehab, head of the U.N. Development Program unit for energy and the environment. By comparison, the tanker Exxon Valdez released about 38,000 tons of crude oil after running aground in Alaskan coastal waters in 1989.

"This is affecting algae, rocky and sandy beaches, as well as aquatic life," he said. Because of the thickness of the oil, "oxygen cannot enter the water and the life chain of aquatic vegetation that fish eat to survive will die. Fishermen who make their daily living off this sector are doomed," he added.

The power plant, supplying southern Lebanon, was hit early in the war as Israeli forces targeted public infrastructure on grounds it was helping Hezbollah guerrillas.

Tareq Ghattas, an employee at the plant, said Israeli warplanes and gunboats were operating in the area and it was unclear which hit the plant, which had five large fuel tanks. Workers immediately raised sandbags around the generating plant. It was saved but has been shut down for now, he said.

Until the war between Israel and Hezbollah broke out, Lebanon was on its way to improving its environment. Public awareness was built through billboards that read: "Do a Good Deed, Don't Toss Things into the Sea," an adaptation from a local proverb encouraging anonymous charity ("Perform good deeds and throw them into the sea").

According to the Environmental Performance Index of Yale and Columbia universities, Lebanon had climbed into the top 25th percentile among 140 countries in pollution control and resource management, ranking 36th, the leading Arab country.

This summer, said Hatjian of the Environment Ministry, he had planned to focus on programs to help farmers and industrialists use environmentally friendly pest control, to reforest parts of the country with cedars and to improve a coastline reserve that had thrived around a freshwater spring.


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