2006 Conflict Left Lebanon Littered with Toxic Waste

BERLIN, Germany, January 23, 2007 (ENS) - Urgent widespread environmental problems confront the Lebanese authorities as a result of the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel last summer, finds a report issued today by the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP.

On the positive side, the missiles used in the conflict did not contain depleted uranium or any other kind of radioactive material, finds the report prepared by UNEP’s Post-Conflict Branch. As evidence, the report cites detailed field tests and analysis of samples at laboratories in Europe.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, "The report provides a comprehensive picture of the outstanding environmental problems facing the Lebanon and its people. Some of these, like war-related debris, cluster bombs on farmland, toxic waste - the result of bomb damage and fires at industrial facilities - and the widespread damage to water and sewage systems require urgent remedial action."


Volunteers from the Lebanese nongovernmental organization Bahr Loubnan remove oil from the rocky coastline north of the Jiyeh power plant. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
"Others are more long-term in nature including the necessity for systematic monitoring of the health of local populations, and the environment, in certain key locations," Steiner said.

The post-conflict assessment was carried out at the request of the Lebanese authorities following the cessation of hostilities August 14, 2006.

Funded by the governments of Germany, Norway and Switzerland, the assessment was issued just ahead of a donor meeting on Lebanon reconstruction taking place in Paris on Thursday.

Lebanon is expected to ask for at least US$8 billion. Public debt last year was around $38 billion, consuming at least two-thirds of government income prior to the Hezbollah war with Israel.

Steiner says he hopes donors at the Paris meeting will "factor the environment into their plans for Lebanon."

Many of the bombed and burned out factories and industrial complexes including the Jiyeh power plant south of Beirut, are contaminated with toxic and hazardous substances, says the report.


UNEP Post-Conflict Assessment team member examines the damaged fuel tanks at the Jiyeh power plant on the Lebanese coast. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
Urgent action is needed to remove and safely dispose of these substances, which include ash and leaked chemicals, amid concerns they represent a threat to water supplies and public health.

The main hot spots of concern are the Choueifat industrial area where a cluster of sites was bombed, Beirut’s International Airport, and the Ghabris detergent factory in Tyre.

At these sites there are toxic or hazardous ashes, oils, heavy metals, industrial chemicals, rubble, solid waste and sewage. These may pose health risks to cleanup workers and local communities.

Toxics at several sites have the potential to leak into water supplies unless the sites are thoroughly decontaminated and the pollution contained, the report states.

Dealing with and disposing of large quantities of war-related debris, including medical and hospital waste, is a major environmental challenge. The UNEP team found that the sheer scale of the debris is overwhelming existing municipal dump sites and waste management regimes.


This dump site in Bourj el Barajina municipality was created to deal with post-conflict debris. Dust generation and the lack of safety equipment for workers at dump sites are serious problems. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
Their report stresses the importance of rapidly removing unexploded cluster bombs, especially in the south of the country where large areas of economically important agricultural land have become “out of bounds” for farmers.

Experts with the UN mine clearance operation estimate that the de-mining could take up to 15 months. Agricultural land should be the priority, particularly in prime areas like olive groves and fruit orchards, the team advises.

"It is also important to provide alternative livelihood support for the population of southern Lebanon so that they are able to cope in this critical interim period without undermining the natural resource base," says the report.


Cluster bomb sub-munitions recovered from South Lebanon (Photo courtesy UNEP)
Fires caused the loss of economically valuable tree species in southern Lebanon, impairing the government’s fledgling reforestation program.

Widespread damage to Lebanon’s water supply and sewage networks also occurred as a result of the recent hostilities. Prior to the 34 day conflict, the networks had been undergoing comprehensive upgrading and modernization.

“These networks were extensively damaged in the conflict and hence present a risk of groundwater contamination and a potential public health hazard. Waste water management constitutes a major chronic environmental stress factor,” says the report.

Oil pollution to the marine environment released by boming of the Jiyeh power plant has been largely contained and contamination levels appear to be generally typical of coastal areas of that part of the Mediterranean, good news for the country’s economically important tourism and fisheries sectors, the report found.

At least 15,000 metric tons of fuel oil gushed from the damaged Jiyeh plant, affecting 150 kilometers of the Lebanese coastline and parts of Syria’s coast.

Steiner praised the international emergency response effort - involving the Lebanese authorities, governments in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, the European Commission, the World Conservation Union, IUCN, local nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations, "for moving as quickly as the difficult circumstances permitted to tackle the spill at the time."


UNEP and local experts assess damage at the glass factory in Zahlen. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
The results of today’s report are based on a field assessment by 12 environmental experts carried out between late September and mid-October following a request from the Lebanese Minister of the Environment.

The team was accompanied by 15 Lebanese environment ministry staff and volunteers and a scientist from the Lebanese Atomic Energy Agency. They visited over 100 selected sites.

To settle the question of whether Lebanon was contaminated with depleted uranium, DU, during the conflict, the UNEP team visited sites showing the highest probability of having been attacked with deep penetrating munitions. The team also visited sites rumored to have been attacked with DU-containing weapons, including a site at Khiam.

Following strict procedures, a range of smear, dust and soil samples were collected and analysed at the Swiss Spiez Laboratory. Analyses detected neither DU, nor enriched uranium, nor higher than natural uranium content, the report states. "No evidence of DU penetrators, DU-containing metal products, or any other radioactive material that could be linked to a weapon used was found."


UNEP experts collect samples close to the point of impact of a bunker buster bomb. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
Two radioactive sources, which were not related to weapons used in the conflict, were found. At Yatar, a damaged navigation instrument at the crash site of a military helicopter showed elevated radiation levels, and thorium-containing high temperature oven bricks were found at a glass factory in Zahleh. The Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission has been informed of these findings.

Samples of soil, surface and ground water, dust, ash, seawater, sediment and molluscs like oysters were collected. These were sent twice a week to specialist laboratories in Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Duplicate samples were made available to the Lebanese authorities.

Short, medium and long-term measures have been drawn up for each of the sites covering issues such as waste removal, decontamination and environmental monitoring.

In the conflict that began on July 12 and ended on August 14, 2006 with a UN mandated ceasefire, about 1,200 people were killed, over 4,400 were injured, and more than 900,000 people in Lebanon fled their homes.

There was widespread destruction of roads and more than 100 bridges and overpasses. Beirut airport and seaports were bombed and an estimated 30,000 housing units destroyed or badly damaged.

The Lebanon Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment is online at: http://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/UNEP_Lebanon.pdf