Dona Challita / Special to The Daily Star – 2007-05-28 22:57:39
BEIRUT (May 28, 2007) — Several forms of pollutants have fouled the sea off Lebanon for decades, including industrial effluents, untreated sewage and runoff from coastal garbage dumps. As though this were not enough, an Israeli attack during the war last summer added another hazardous element to the mix when the destruction of the storage tanks at the jiyyeh power plant south of Beirut released an estimated 15,000 tons of fuel oil into the Mediterranean.
Experts immediately warned of an environmental catastrophe threatening biodiversity, public health and the country’s crucial tourism industry. Yet nine months after the spill, environmentalists say Lebanon’s coastal areas are still contaminated by considerable amounts of the oil, even though many of the clean-up operations have been concluded.
“Lots of areas are still polluted along the Lebanese coastline,” said Nina Jammal, an environmental activist from Green Line, a local non-governmental organization (NGO).
Extensive local and international media coverage of the spill and its aftermath has stoked greater public interest in environmental issues, especially one with the potential to cause so much harm. People want to know whether it is safe to swim in the sea, eat fish caught in coastal areas, or even lie on the beach during the summer.
The impression from environmentalists is not encouraging: They say it will take plenty of time and millions of dollars to undo the damage caused by what has been described as the greatest environmental disaster in the country’s history.
“Even if Lebanon is able to mop up, the marine ecosystem could take years to recover,” said Jammal.
Estimates of the price of the clean-up vary between $100 and $200 million. These are based on the approximate cost of cleaning up 1 ton of oil, which the Energy Ministry pegs at between $10,000 and $15,000 depending on the difficulty of accessing the area that needs to be cleaned up.
After the attack on Jiyyeh, which sits about 30 kilometers south of the capital, the slick quickly began to spread northward, contaminating some 150 kilometers of Lebanon’s coast, and even part of Syria’s. Affected areas included several popular beaches and as well as the historic harbor at Byblos and the Palm Islands Nature Reserve. Small ports used to berth fishing boats and pleasure craft are also polluted by the spill.
Following a request for assistance issued by the Lebanese Environment Ministry, many countries and international organizations came forward with offers to help. Lebanon received around $15 million worth of donations from both international organizations and government bodies, among them the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
For instance, a protocol agreement was signed between Lebanon and Switzerland to clean the coast between Anfeh and Tripoli, including the Palm Islands Reserve. USAID has donated about $5 million for the clean-up and contracted an American company, SEACOR, to work on the stretch of coast between Byblos and Anfeh.
The Environment Ministry’s efforts to clear both sandy and rocky beaches, as well as remove oily water, have benefited from funding and equipment provided by several foreign governments, including those of Kuwait, Norway, Finland and France. This equipment ranges from specialized skimmers and high-pressure pumps to absorbent booms and manual shovels. Experts and technicians have also been brought in to help direct and carry out parts of the clean-up.
At present, the main challenge is to determine the next phase. Local environmentalists told The Daily Star that the Environment Ministry has still not decided what to do with the contaminated water and sand that have been collected thus far. Most of the recovered oil still sits in barrels near where it was collected. Environmentalists fear that rain and other climatic factors might cause the oil to escape and cause a new contamination with a potentially huge impact on human health and the environment. They blame disorganization and a lack of follow-up for the situation.
“The coordination between the government and local NGOs was weak,” said Jammal.
According to the Environment Ministry, both the floating oil and fouled sections of the seabed have been totally cleaned up.
In order to dispose of the collected oil, many suggestions have been proposed – such as the re-use of the liquid oil by burning it for electricity – but no decision has been taken. The use of the sandy oil can be used in the glass and cement industries. Local environmentalists said the oily waste was toxic to humans and should be stored with other hazardous wastes.
Studies have been conducted by international organizations in order to find effective solutions.
“They cost … tens of thousands of dollars, and nothing happened until now,” said Habib Maalouf, head of the National Environmental Party.
For all the criticism leveled at the government over its performance in dealing with the spill and its aftermath, NGOs who contributed to clean-up operations have been also criticized.
“People who think that by covering up a visual eyesore they are solving the problem need to know that they are just making things worse for the environment,” said a local environmentalist who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“At Jbeil’s beach, for instance, clean sand was placed over dirty polluted sand and the polluted sand is still on the shore,” the environmentalist added.
The indirect cost of the oil spill increases with every passing day. People are prevented from consuming local fish and going to beaches. The type of oil that hit the shores has been classified as “heavy/medium fuel oil.”
Testing carried out by Italian experts show that the oil contains several harmful substances, including benzo(a)pyrene, a highly toxic material.
Experts said the oil pollution could have a long-term impact on people’s health, raising the risk of cancers, immunity problems, and skin rashes. Some possible short-term effects might include nausea, headaches and dermatological problems in residents living close to the affected areas or in beachgoers who come in contact with the oil.
To date, the sea water has not been yet tested to determine if it is safe to swim in or not. According to environmental experts, people can be harmed by inhaling fumes in the air, consuming contaminated water or fish caught in it, and even skin contact.
Leyla Serhal, a swimmer and diver, said that even though she is not confident about the safety of the water, she will go to the beach this summer.
“People who are used to going to the beach won’t change their habits,” she explained.
According to Maalouf, the National Environment Party intends to test the sea water in cooperation with laboratories and international organizations. It also plans to launch an awareness campaign at the beginning of the summer.
“If people are afraid to go to beaches, the majority of beach clubs that have swimming pools can pick up the slack” said Hussein Cherefeddine owner of the Pangea resort in Jiyyeh.
He expects that business won’t be affected as 85 percent of his clients usually prefer swimming pools.
“Business will be similar to last year before the war,” he predicted. In his opinion, the sea pollution will not deter beachgoers. “I will be the first one to swim,” he said.
Environmentalists note that the beach is not just a place where people go to sunbathe: It is also a living ecosystem, they stress, and marine species have been the worst hit.
The oil spill has destroyed parts of the habitat for some species of coastal marine life. A significant amount of oil was also deposited on rock and pebble shorelines, which are more difficult to clean than sandy beaches and will therefore have a more lasting impact on local ecosystems and the species that live in them. The pollution has threatened some rare marine species in Lebanese waters, for instance the endangered loggerhead turtles, by fouling the beaches that they normally use to lay their eggs.
“July is hatching season for turtle eggs and baby turtles have to reach deep water as fast as possible to avoid predators. With the oil in their way, they will not survive,” said one local environmentalist who spoke on condition anonymity.
Environmental activists said that even after the completion of the clean-up work, seafood should be carefully inspected before it enters the market because it may be toxic. Crops and animal products from coastal farms close to the spill sites might also have to be tested for hydrocarbon content.
To evaluate the risks associated with consuming seafood affected by fuel pollution, the National Center for Marine Research conducted a study. The evaluation was based on the concentration levels of toxic pollutants especially polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) accumulated in seafood. The study showed that the concentration was allowable, and fish is safe for consumption.
But Jammal wonders about the safety of fish.
“The negative impact might appear with time after the bio-accumulation of heavy metals,” she said.
Rick Steiner, an oil expert and member of the World Conservation Union’s Commission on Environmental and Economic Social Policy who worked on the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, said that PAHs can cause cancer; they can accumulate in organs and cause long-term impacts such as the sudden collapse of fish populations, years after contamination, as happened in Alaska.
After the oil spill, the Environment Ministry issued a report that included a warning for the citizens to stay away from polluted sites along the coast. The ministry advised against fishing along the coast from Jiyyeh to Heri-Chekka until the complete scope of the pollution could be assessed.
In addition to the oil spill, other factors have polluted the sea in recent years. The direct discharge of sewage, industrial waste and household refuse without prior treatment and with no sanitary measures has fouled many beaches.
In addition, the sea has been polluted by chemicals, plastic bags, aluminum, and numerous heavy metals. The industrial sector contributes several sets of pollutants, especially those associated with combustion processes. Major sources of pollution are effluent from tanneries, fertilizer production, soap and paint factories, food-processing facilities, and waste disposal into the water from ships.
A study on fish in 1997 found that 30 percent of all the fish caught along the Lebanese coast had plastic in their stomachs and divers commonly complain about the presence of plastic under the sea. Traces of mercury and pesticides have been found in measurable concentrations in fish offshore. And sediment from soil erosion or stirred up during coastal construction has destroyed or deteriorated many of the species’ breeding grounds.
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