Contaminated for Years to Come

The war in Lebanon has cost not only the lives of thousands of people. The environment is also damaged for years to come as a result of an oil spill, dust and ash rain, as well as the rubbish from destroyed apartments. Bernhard Hillenkamp reports with the details

Oil contamination in the port of Byblos (photo: AP)
In the aftermath of the war, there was no effective coordination of the work between ministries, NGOs and international organizations in order to contain environmental damage

​​A group of volunteers in white overalls are standing on the beach of Byblos. The 15 volunteers from the town north of Beirut are working in the blazing sun. On a tarp they have piled black plastic bags full of oil-smeared sand, wood and other objects. A section of the beach looks like the Bounty commercial and has never looked so clean.

When the Israeli army started its 33-day attack on Lebanon on July 12, 2006, it took only one day before the bombs and rockets ignited the oil tanks of the power station in Jiyye 30 kilometers south of Beirut, causing them to leak.

The oil ran into the Mediterranean Sea. The prevalent current at this time of the year and the wind drove the approximately 12,000 tons of fuel oil northward toward Beirut and Byblos. Around 100 kilometers of the coast has been diversely affected – depending on the current. The port in Byblos is now one of the 31 so-called "heavily polluted" areas.

Delayed reaction

Not only the direct hits on the facilities, but also the targeted attacks on the infrastructure all over southern Lebanon saw to it that the black mass flowing from the burning tanks poured into the sea for weeks. Around 20 percent, says Nick Nuttall, of U.N. Environment Program, has probably evaporated, the rest will eventually settle on the beaches and the seabed.

"The delayed reaction was not ideal," remarks Rick Steiner diplomatically. Steiner is an expert who assisted in confining the oil pollution in 1989 after the Exxon Valdez tanker accident in Alaska. He says the oil spill in Lebanon is more dangerous than the one in Alaska, because the Lebanese state responded so late.

"No emergency plan, no equipment, even the foreign-trained workers in the Ministry of Environmental Protection did not put their knowledge into action," complains Ali Darwish, chairman of the Lebanese environmental organization Greenline.

Ministries, NGOs and international organizations

"With comparable accidents," according to Darwish, "many people are involved in cleaning up the coasts." Here the first clean-up operations were organized by a few NGOs. "But we had problems with the ministries, which weren't supporting our work, but hindering us from obtaining permits."

Bassam Qantar, a journalist for the Arab newspaper Akhbar, criticizes that "the organization 'Meer Libanon,' which is close to the Hariri family, monopolized the clean-up operations."

The organization received five million dollars from France and made the grandiose announcement that it would clean up the entire Lebanese coast. A race for international money ensued, preventing any effective coordination of the work between ministries, NGOs and international organizations.

Other potential impacts on health from bombs and dust are not as clearly visible. The internationally outlawed polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are used in electrical stations in Lebanon. When burned, as was the case during the war, they release poisonous gases, which can cause birth defects.

When the substance reaches the food chain, it weakens the immune system. The 40,000 tons of kerosene that were in attacks during the war burned during the war as well as other dust and ash particles also pose a health risk.

Debris thrown into the sea

Another environmental evil is the debris from the destroyed buildings. According to continually updated figures, 30,000 houses are inhabitable and must be torn down. Buildings are presently being cleared away, especially in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Most of the rubbish has been brought to two sites near the sea in the district of Ouzai. "During the first three days the debris was thrown directly into the sea," says Omer Elnaien, the public relations spokesman for Greenpeace in Beirut.

"Then environmental activists intervened," explains Elanaien. Since then two rubble hills at the Beirut airport have dramatically grown in size.

Complex impact on the biosystem

Ali Darwish regards this practice as highly dubious: "The debris is not being adequately separated, and many harmful substances are now buried in the rubble. They will soon be released in the environment, the groundwater and the sea.

"Greenpeace wants to study the real long-term effects of this environmental catastrophe," says Darwish. Although the beaches seem clean after the clean-up operations, the impact on the biosystem is complex.

"Our organization wants to scientifically study the effects on the environment together with international partners. Greenpeace is also calling for a regional appraisal of the effect of the war on the environment.

But Greenline also wants to call the state responsible – Israel – to account. "With a group of activists from Holland we are preparing to file a complaint against Israel. (…) We assume that Israel intended to inflict environmental damage as a means of applying pressure."

The battle for the environment on various fronts will most likely continue for years.

Bernhard Hillenkamp

© 2006

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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