Long-term environmental challenges ahead

Much of Lebanon’s coastline was affected after 10,000 tonnes of oil leaked into the Mediterranean Sea when Israel bombed the Jiyyeh power plant. (Focusmideast/IRIN)

Seven months after Israel bombed the coastal Jiyyeh power plant in the south of Beirut, the Mediterranean Sea still spews oil onto Lebanon’s shores, and beach sand shifts to reveal oil slicks that could not be detected before, fishermen say.

With sparkling waves licking the golden sands, Jiyyeh beach looks pristine at first glance. But fisherman Ahmad Kojok stoops and pulls up the corner of a black slab in the sea. It is solid oil.

“We found another huge patch of oil over there,” said Kojok, waving towards a patch of sea by a rocky shelf that juts out into the bay. “It’s all oil just there.”

The team of eight or so fishermen on Jiyyeh beach pass bucketfuls of oil along in a chain. Given the slow, arduous nature of the work, it is hard to believe this coast was covered in an oozing black slick just a few months ago. On this bay, the worst hit in Lebanon’s most serious environmental crisis, only the odd, solidified pool remains. Behind it loom the huge fuel vats of the power plant, crumpled like cola cans.

Stockpiles of chemicals

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the disposal of toxic waste and other debris from Israel’s bombing last July and August still poses a major environmental challenge to Lebanon. Unexploded cluster bombs, sacks oozing oil on beaches, mountains of rubble and bombed-out factories with stockpiles of chemicals all may have a far-reaching impact on people and their environment unless treated urgently, says the agency.

UNEP’s Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment report, released in late January, says much of the early phase of the cleanup has been completed.

But more than a hundred sacks of oil standing to one side, scraped up from one part of the bay alone, are testimony to the environmental challenges the tiny Mediterranean country must still surmount.

“One of the outstanding issues of the clean-up work is the urgent need to dispose of large quantities of oil-contaminated waste,” Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, wrote in his foreword to the report. “This is a continuing challenge for those involved in the clean-up efforts and requires the financial and technical support of the international community.”

“Getting rid of the bags of oil is our biggest problem now,” says Mohamed al-Sarji, of the NGO Bahr Lubnan (Lebanon’s Sea), who is in charge of the cleanup of this part of the coast.

“When the sun gets hot again, this will go back to its liquid state and could leak and soak into the ground,” al-Sarji said.

Several of the sacks, each of which weighs about a tonne, are oozing oil. Driving along the bay, which is lined with private clubs favoured by Lebanon’s elite, al-Sarji points out other piles of sacks or rows of barrels.

The UNEP report said up to 75,000 cubic metres of heavy fuel oil could have been burned, spilled or leaked into the ground after the Israeli air raids of 13 and 15 July 2006, though the exact amount is still unknown.

Air pollution

Furthermore, hazardous toxins were likely to have been released into the air from the Jiyyeh bombing, the report said. It was not, however, the remit of the team to test air pollution, “even though it is recognised that it was probably one of the most serious environmental impacts of the conflict”.

“The smoke itself would have contained a potentially toxic cocktail of pollutants - including soot, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, methane and a range of hydrocarbons - the combination of which could be expected to cause a significant degree of environmental pollution and respiratory problems for local residents,” the report said.

Ali Darwish, president of Lebanon’s Greenline environmental NGO, said air pollution around Jiyyeh and other bombsites must be measured as soon as possible.

“Cleanup should not be restricted to what’s visible. There should also be long-term monitoring of the quality of water, of the quality of fish and of marine life in general,” he said.

Soil samples taken from around the power plant showed a high level of hydrocarbons, a petroleum product linked to health risks. The report also suggested that people living near the plant be monitored over the long-term for heart problems and cancers.

One positive finding in the report was that Lebanon’s marine environment had “largely escaped” long-term damage, UNEP’s Steiner said.

Ghada Mitri, oil spill cleanup coordinator for the Ministry of Environment, said the lack of chemical damage was fortunate.

“Chemically, the fuel did not disintegrate. So the fuel will not be leaking into the food chain or leaving a chemical breakdown in the water.

“What the fuel did cause was a major physical crisis. It stuck to whatever it touched; it’s a toxic substance, it can cause dermatological problems, it is an eyesore, especially in sites visited by tourists over the summer,” she said.

Mountains of rubble

Other environmental damage was less high profile.

In Ouzai, where Beirut’s badly bombed southern suburbs meet the sea, a mountain of concrete, rubble and dust filled with household debris sprawls along the coastline. The Israeli bombing of Lebanon in its summer war with Hezbollah destroyed or ruined 30,000 housing units and damaged a further 500,000, according to the government.

Within days of the war’s end in mid-August, about 400 truckloads a day ferried millions of tonnes of rubble to improvised or existing dumps in Lebanon for six to eight weeks, according to Karim al-Jisr, an environmental consultant to the World Bank.

“And it [Ouzai dump] contains everything you can think of, furniture, anything you’d find in a house - a lot of potentially hazardous materials, electronic equipment, batteries,” asl-Jisr said.

Asbestos was another worry, he said, as the homes were mainly built in the 1970s and 80s when the dangerous substance was commonly used. “We don’t know how much but probability says that asbestos has been released and some hazardous waste as well.”

Greenline’s Darwish said most villages in the south had been forced to dump debris in outlying areas, with little awareness of whether pollutants could be washed into groundwater by winter streams or rain.

This item comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. All IRIN material may be reposted or reprinted free-of-charge; refer to the copyright page for conditions of use. IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Related Links

  • UN calls for urgent aid to clean up toxic debris from summer war with Israel, UN News Service (23 January 2007)