Lebanon Sees Environmental Devastation

The Associated Press
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; 2:02 PM

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Endangered turtles die shortly after hatching from their eggs. Fish float dead off the coast. Flaming oil sends waves of black smoke toward the city.

In this country of Mediterranean beaches and snowcapped mountains, Israeli bombing that caused an oil spill has created an environmental disaster. And cleanup cannot start until the fighting stops, the U.N. says.

World attention has focused on the hundreds of people who have died in the 3-week-old conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. The environmental damage has attracted little attention but experts warn the long-term effects could be devastating.

Some 110,000 barrels of oil poured into the Mediterranean two weeks ago after Israeli warplanes hit a coastal power plant. One tank is still burning, sending thick black smoke across the country.

Compounding the problem is an Israeli naval blockade and continuing military operations that have made any cleanup impossible. And environmental officials say the longer the problem is allowed to go unchecked, the greater the lasting damage.

"The immediate impact can be severe but we have not been able to do an immediate assessment," said U.N. Environment Program executive director Achim Steiner in Geneva. "But the longer the spill is left untreated, the harder it will be to clean up."

The oil so far has slicked about one-third of Lebanon's coast, a 50-mile stretch centered on the Jiyeh plant 12 miles south of Beirut, said the country's environment minister, Yaacoub Sarraf. It has also drifted out into the Mediterranean, already hitting neighboring Syria.

Experts warn Cyprus, Turkey and even Greece could be affected.

Sarraf said Israeli planes "purposely hit the tanks which are the closest to the sea," and knocked out the berms designed to prevent any ruptured tanks from sending oil flowing into the waters.

"Chances are, our whole marine ecosystem facing the Lebanese shoreline is already dead," Sarraf said. "What is at stake today is all marine life in the eastern Mediterranean."

Israel's Environmental Affairs ministry declined comment, referring questions to the Foreign Ministry, which did not immediately return phone calls.

Lebanon, whose flag features a cedar tree and which is known by many as Green Lebanon for its forested mountains, is one of the few countries in the Arab world that pays attention to pollution. Minibuses that run on diesel have been banned, while factories are forced to abide by strict rules.

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