Spills of War

For the past four weeks a mass of black sludge composed of between 15,000 and 35,000 tons of medium/heavy grade oil has been creeping unhampered up the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon. International environmental groups are calling the mid-July destruction of Beirut's Jiyyeh Power Plant -- and the massive oil spill that resulted -- one of the worst environmental crises in the region's history.

On July 13, Israeli bombs destroyed the plant -- 20 miles south of Beirut -- setting fire to five fuel tanks and sending thousands of gallons of oil into the Eastern Mediterranean. The Lebanese Ministry of Environment estimates the total spill could rival the Exxon Valdez catastrophe of 1989. In addition to the oil, the burning tanks sent black clouds of toxic smoke into the sky over Beirut that were visible from as far as 30 miles away.

By the start of August, the oil spill had already polluted more than 90 miles of the Lebanese coastline -- destroying Beirut's once pristine beaches in the process. On August 2, satellite images revealed that the slick had reached the Syrian coastline and is spreading north. “We have never seen a spill like this in the history of Lebanon,” the country's environment minister, Yacoub al-Sarraf, told Al-Jazeera.

Lebanese officials report cleanup will cost as much as $200 million -- money the country does not have. And that's the good news. They warn that the marine ecosystem may never fully recover. The Lebanese coastal waters are important nesting grounds for the endangered green sea turtle and during the summer months, the Eastern Mediterranean is home to spawning bluefin tuna. The spill is also proving disastrous for local economies -- a majority of which subsist on fishing.

Adding insult to injury, the continuing Israeli bombardment and a weeks-long sea blockade have made it nearly impossible for agencies to fully address the situation or begin proper containment procedures.

Experts complain that until the bombs stop falling, little can be done to stem the flow of oil. A coalition jointly led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) hopes that will happen long enough to allow a full assessment of the situation.

Paul Mifsud, coordinator of UNEP's Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP), called the situation an environmental catastrophe. “Hostilities must cease to guarantee immediate safe access to the affected area,” he said. Indeed, a number of countries remain on standby, ready to supply experts and equipment once it is safe to do so. On the ground, a group of Lebanese environmentalists -- including The Union of Professional Divers and the Green Line Association -- along with local emergency personnel have managed to extinguish the burning tanks and begin a preliminary assessment, but progress has been slow going.

“Heavy bombing over the weekend made the two main roads to the spill impassable,” says Wael Hmaiden, the coordinator of the oil spill team for Green Line Association. “We were forced to temporarily halt assessment operations.”

Requests for assistance from the Lebanese government have been forwarded through UNEP to the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre for the Mediterranean (REMPEC) -- a U.N.-administered action center based in Malta. But REMPEC has been equally stymied. “We currently don't have access to the area because of the conflict,” says REMPEC spokesperson Luisa Colasimone. “We need at least a cease-fire to obtain security clearance to send an assessment team to the ground.”

The group warns that each passing day without action only compounds the potential damage.

“There is a serious risk of remobilization of part of the oil floating along the Lebanese shorelines ... taking into consideration that no action could be taken so far to clean up,” REMPEC said in a statement. The group warned that without immediate action, Cyprus, Turkey, Greece and Israel are all in danger of being affected by the spill.

REMPEC says it has received pledges of assistance from members of the Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea Against Pollution (known as the Barcelona Convention) – of which Israel is a member. As a ratifying party of the 1976 Convention, Israel has pledged to “take all appropriate measures to prevent, abate, combat, and eliminate pollution of the Mediterranean Sea area.”

But so far it has made no attempt to address the spill or allow safe passage to the site. Green Line's Hmaiden is not surprised by Israel's lack of response. “Israel is part of the Barcelona Convention, but I think they don't want to shed light on this environmental disaster since they are directly responsible for it,” he says. Hmaiden argues that the Jiyyeh plant was not even a legitimate target since Hezbollah fighters were nowhere near the site and do not rely on the power it generates. “We don't believe that there was any reason for Israel to target the fuel tanks of the electrical power plant,” he says.

Colasimone says REMPEC has not heard from Israel's Ministry of the Environment either. “So far 11 out of the 22 contracting parties to the Convention have reacted to our request for assistance. We have not received any information from [Israel].”

Calls to the Israeli Ministry of the Environment on August 9 were forwarded to a voicemail in the Ministry's International Relations Division.

In the meantime, Hmaiden says his people will continue working with local Lebanese officials to do all they can to mitigate the damage. “We have been going along the coast in cars to take measurements, document impacted areas, take samples and do some mapping,” he says. “We are hoping to start cleanup operations in some sensitive areas on our own.”

Countrywide, the United Nations lists five other Lebanese refinery and fuel storage sites that have been destroyed and pose environmental risk. Additionally, as of August 5, at least 22 fuel stations had been reported as destroyed and other damaged industrial sites are potentially leaking ammonia, hydrofluoric acid, formaldehyde, and toxic chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics from the damaged Sai El-Deen facility.

Since the outbreak of war in the region, much debate has focused on questions of proportionate response and of Israel's commitment to minimizing civilian casualties when waging attacks. But environmental destruction constitutes another kind of collateral damage. In the end, it's likely the ecological impact of the Israeli assault of Lebanon will extend well beyond the borders of one small Mediterranean country, and persist long after the bombs stop falling.

Christopher Moraff is a Philadelphia-based writer and reporter who has written for In These Times and The American Prospect Online, among other publications.

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