Oily Sludge From Bombed Power Plant Fouls Lebanon's Coast

NAIROBI, Kenya, July 31, 2006 (ENS) - Tons of heavy fuel oil spilled by the Israeli bombing of a power utility south of Beirut has spread along 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the Lebanese coastline and is threatening the Syrian coast as well.

As much as 35,000 metric tons of oil is estimated to have spilled into the Mediterranean Sea after air strikes on July 13 and 15 hit fuel tanks at the Jiyyeh power plant, and winds have since pushed the oil northwards.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), based in Nairobi, is helping to organize a cleanup team after the government of Lebanon appealed for help to the UN Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council July 26.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, "The government of Lebanon has requested international assistance from the United Nations and we stand ready to do all we can as soon as it is possible to carry out this urgent work."

"We share the Lebanese authorities' concerns over the impact on coastal communities who are being affected by an environmental tragedy which is rapidly taking on a national but also a regional dimension," Steiner said.


Oil is washing ashore along the coast of Lebanon from ruptured fuel tanks at the Jiyyeh power plant 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Beirut. (Photo © Christian Henderson courtesy IRIN)
The European Commission's Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC) is mobilizing the help of EU member states in cleaning up the spill, said Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas of Greece.

"Wars do cause enormous human suffering as we are witnessing now in Lebanon. But another aspect is also the significant environmental destruction caused by it," Dimas said, "The recent oil spill off the coast of Lebanon could affect the livelihood and health of the Lebanese and people in neighboring countries as well as the status of the marine environment in the region."

The MIC will assist EU member states to provide co-ordinated assistance, including experts and specialized materials, said Dimas.

Officials at Lebanon's environment ministry told IRIN, a UN humanitarian news and information service, that the cleanup operation will take at least a year to complete and estimated the cost at more than US$130 million.

There are fears that more oil could spill into the Mediterranean Sea because a fire at the Jiyyeh facility that started Thursday now threatens a undamaged tank that contains 15,000 metric tons of oil. A thick cloud of black smoke from the fire has polluted the air over Beirut and its suburbs.

Officials have warned people who live near the sea to keep their windows closed and stay away from the oil as the fumes can cause skin and breathing problems.

Steiner said he is concerned about the humanitarian and environmental impacts linked with strikes on other infrastructure like airports and sea ports and industrial facilities, which may be leaking toxic chemicals into the environment putting local populations and aid workers at risk.

"Firstly our thoughts are with the suffering of the civilian population and the immediate crisis of the oil slick," he said. "But when the conflict is over, we must do all we can to rapidly pinpoint pollution hotspots in rivers, in the air, in the sea and on the land which can have a detrimental impact on human health and well being."

Requests for assistance from the government of Lebanon are being handled by the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Center for the Mediterranean Sea (REMPEC) based in Malta.

REMPEC, administered by the UN International Maritime Organization and part UNEP's Regional Seas Network, is giving daily advice to the Lebanese Ministry of the Environment on how to tackle the oil slick.

REMPEC has requested assistance for equipment, personnel and funding from governments who are parties to the Barcelona Convention, the regional Mediterranean environment treaty.

So far Algeria, Cyprus, the European Community, France, Malta and Spain have responded positively.


Oil slick from the bombing of the Jiyyeh power plant coats Lebanese shores. (Photo © Christian Henderson courtesy IRIN)
The Center is putting together a team of experts to assist with the cleanup when hostilities cease and has activated its Mediterranean Assistance Unit to mobilize key pollution control centers in the region.

The pollution control centers include CEDRE - the Centre de Documentation, de Recherche et d'Expérimentations sur les Pollutions Accidentelles des Eaux - based in Brest, France; and FEDERCHIMICA - the Federazione Nazionale dell'Industria Chimica, the Italian National Federation of Chemical Industry with its headquarters in Milan.

Another pollution control center that will be called upon to deal with the spill is ICRAM - Istituto Centrale per la Ricerca Scientifica e Tecnologica Applicata al Mare - located in Rome. The research institute specializes in environmental aspects of spill response and post-incident response activities.

Meanwhile, the joint UNEP/OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) Environment Unit is on standby to send a team and is closely monitoring the situation. The joint unit is looking at how it can support REMPEC's fund raising efforts.

"We must also be concerned about the short and long term impacts on the marine environment," Steiner said, "including the biodiversity upon which so many people depend for their livelihoods and living via tourism and fishing." The spill threatens Lebanon's endangered species such as green sea turtles and blue fin tuna.

Steiner said the joint UNEP/OCHA environment unit is on standby to also deal with these wider issues and had extensive expertise in the field.

Longer term post conflict reconstruction issues will be addressed by UNEP's Post Conflict Assessment Branch, which has made assessments and formulated action plans from the Balkans to Afghanistan and Iraq.