Saturday, August 26, 2006

A ravaged environment

BEIRUT: The month long war waged by Israel against Hizbullah has caused considerable damage to Lebanon’s environment.
The coastline is marred by an oil spill, the air has been polluted by burning fuel oil, destroyed factories, forest fires and dust kicked up from bombings, and there is the possibility that depleted uranium (DU) and phosphorous bombs were used by the Israeli military.
On July 13 and 15 Israeli warplanes targeted the Jiyye power plant 30 kilometres south of Beirut, causing between 10,000-15,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil to spill into the Mediterranean.
Due to hostilities no clean-up effort was able to get underway, and the slick spread north along Lebanon’s coastline almost 100 kilometres into Syrian territorial waters.
“It is the biggest oil spill in Lebanese history, probably in the Eastern Mediterranean, and one of the biggest environmental disasters to hit the Mediterranean,” said Wael Hmaidan, an environmental scientist and coordinator of the Oil Spill Working Group, part of Lebanese environmental NGO Greenline.
However, bureaucratic difficulties with the Lebanese Environment Ministry have prevented a clean-up operation from starting, despite the ceasefire now in place between Israel and Lebanon.
“Heavy fuel oil is very tough to clean, and everyday there is no clean up it gets worse. The oil goes deeper into the sand, starts to dry out and be absorbed by rocks, and dilutes with the water to settle on the seabed,” Hmaidan said.
He believes carcinogens such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons and other impurities from the spill have entered the sea, causing an estimated $200 million in damages to ecosystems, the seafood industry and tourism.
The cost of the clean-up is estimated at $150 million, with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) allocating 50 million Euros last week as part of an anti-pollution action plan.
Computer models indicate around 20 percent of the oil has probably evaporated with 80 percent on the coastline and 0.25 percent, approximately 40 tonnes, still in the sea.
“It will require six months to a year to clean up the pollution, and marine life will take up to six years to recover,” said Hmaidan.
The effect of the spill on marine life, such as green turtles and the endangered loggerhead turtle, could be disastrous, with turtle nesting grounds to the immediate south and north of Beirut polluted by the spill.
“The hatching period is now, so we need to clean up fast. Turtles have a oil spill survival rate of almost zero,” said Hmaidan.
Although the other turtle nesting grounds on the Lebanese coast are in the south, near the port of Tyre, which have not been affected by the spill as the wind and currents dragged the oil to north, feeding areas will be affected.
The attack on the Jiyye power plant not only caused coastal pollution. One storage facility containing 25,000 tonnes of fuel oil burnt for three weeks, covering the Greater Beirut area with dark clouds.
Hmaidan said polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) usually found in transformers and electrical power plants could have entered the air, as well as dioxins and other organic pollutants. Some 35 factories were also destroyed in the conflict, but no studies have been carried out to assess what chemicals were present in the factories.
Studies also need to be carried out to assess the impact of the war on the water table and soil, and whether the Israeli military used weapons containing depleted uranium (DU).
“There are a lot of important question marks about environmental damage, ranging from bad to very bad,” said Rania Masri, associate professor of environmental science at Balamund University and a DU researcher.
“If DU was used, and we add on the potential of nuclear waste by-products in rubble, we are up Niagara Falls without a paddle,” she said. “And if we have DU in the soil, we have bioaccumulation.”
However, researchers are getting contradictory information on whether the Israelis used DU. And with inadequate research facilities in Lebanon, finding out whether DU was used will depend on the outcome of studies by European experts expected to arrive in Lebanon next month.
Investigations are also underway to ascertain whether phosphorous and other chemical-based weapons were used.
“If the Israelis used phosphorous the impact on the environment would be very high, as it would inhibit plant growth, and enter the soil and the earth,” said Layal Dandache, an agriculturalist with Greenline.
The reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure and residential buildings – estimated at 15,000 units – will also take its toll on the environment.
“There were many environmental problems before this war, but when massive reconstruction occurs like now, the environment takes a secondary slot. All the materials needed for reconstruction will cause huge environment stress,” said Masri.

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