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Lebanon Sees Environmental Devastation
Now, large parts of the country's sandy and rocky beaches, visited in the past by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, are covered with thick black oil. Many fishermen have been forced out of business, and people are getting scared to eat fish. Baby turtles, usually born in late summer, die after they swim into the polluted water shortly after hatching from eggs.
Syria was already experiencing similar problems, said Hassan Murjan, who heads the environment department in the Syrian city of Tartous.
"The oil pollution has caused serious environmental damage because our coast is rocky and this is very dangerous for marine life," Murjan told the official news agency SANA.
The first country to rush help to Lebanon was Kuwait, which suffered a similar disaster during the 1991 Gulf War. But three truckloads of cleanup supplies the country sent in are stuck in Beirut, with crews waiting for the fighting to wane before beginning work, said the capital's mayor, Abdel Monem Ariss.
"We have no access to Lebanon territorial waters," Sarraf said. "This means that we are already 10 days delayed and in terms of oil pollution, 10 days is a century."
Three local environmental organizations demanded a cease-fire to no avail.
"Cleanup operations should start as soon as possible; otherwise, most of the damage will be irreversible," warned Wael Hmaidan, head of the assessment group on the ground. "The more time we allow the oil to settle into the sand, rocks and seabed, the harder it will be to clean it up."
Sarraf estimated it will cost $30 million to $50 million to clean up the shorelines, and possibly ten times that much for the entire effort. Optimistic assessments suggest it will take at least six months for the shore cleanup and up to 10 years for "the reestablishment of the ecosystem of the eastern Mediterranean as it was two weeks ago," he said.
In Geneva, the UNEP's Steiner said the agency has teams on standby to move to Lebanon as soon as the conditions permit.
"Oil and marine diversity do not mix well," Steiner said. "We are immediately concerned for marine life in the area."
Sarraf likened the disaster to a spill off France in 1999, when an oil tanker split in two and dumped 70,000 barrels of oil into the Atlantic. But he said this case is complicated by the burning tank and the inability of cleanup crews to begin work.
"We are facing a much more critical problem, he said. "I say imagine you having your kid sick, knowing that he is sick, and not being able to bring a physician to examine him and to know what is the disease before you start treating him. This is what we are facing."
Associated Press correspondent Frank Jordans contributed to this report from Geneva.