BEIRUT, 18 August 2006: Armed only with shovels and plastic buckets, a few dozen volunteers struggled on Thursday to scrape oil-stained sand off a Beirut beach as environmental groups began the monumental task of cleaning up tonnes of oil spilt across Lebanon’s coast.
“We’re trying to move as much sand as possible today and tomorrow so we’ll know how many days it will take [to clean Ramlet el-Bayda beach],” said Nina Jamal of the Lebanese environmental group Green Line.
Nearly 15,000 tonnes of leaked oil from the Jiyyeh electric plant, bombed by Israel last month, has polluted some 140 kilometres of the Lebanese coast and spread north into Syrian waters, according to the U.N. Environment Program.
“This is the biggest environmental disaster in the Mediterranean basin, we can say that very easily,” said Green Line’s Wael Hmaidan before rushing off to a meeting with government officials.
Young men and women working on the beach gathered oil-soaked debris into small piles while others tried to dig up sand that had been transformed into a thick, noxious gum by the spill. Others deployed oil booms in a bid to keep the pollution from washing back into the sea.
The one-kilometre beach has been fouled by a vast black smear that has stained the sand dozens of metres inland and blackened stone breakwaters on either end of Ramlet el-Bayda.
More shocking, volunteers said, was Thursday’s discovery that the pollution has reached nearly a half-metre into the beach. A hole dug near the waterline revealed at least five bands of thick fuel oil sandwiched between the sand like a toxic layer cake.
“It makes it much harder to clean, every time a wave comes in it pushes the pollution deeper into the sand,” Jamal said.
“We’ve seen dead fish, dead crabs. The oil is more than one metre deep in some places and we’ve seen rocks so covered that they look like they’ve been painted black,” she said.
“It will be no less than six years before it gets back to normal.”
Cooperation with the government and private sector is key to the cleanup, Jamal said, adding that at least one private company has agreed to store the polluted sand until it can be properly disposed of.
But bureaucracy is still hamstringing Green Line, which already has lost a month of work due to the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah fighters, she said.
A bulldozer brought in earlier in the morning to help shift tonnes of sand was stopped by the authorities from working, forcing the volunteers to go back to their shovels, she said, adding that the spill has endangered breeding sea turtles.
“You can’t have bureaucratic complications when you have an environmental disaster. This is the worst time ecologically,” she said.
On a wider scale, a continuing Israeli blockade is preventing heavy equipment from reaching other worse-hit stretches of coast, said Greenpeace’s communications officer Basma Badran.
“There are local groups making symbolic, temporary cleanup operations, but this requires larger-scale equipment and expertise which is not coming because of the blockade,” she said.
“This is definitely one of the most catastrophic environmental problems that the Lebanon coast has seen, there’s been no proper assessment yet and its extent is unknown,” she said.
Officials from the United Nations, European Union and a maritime organisation are set to meet in Greece next Thursday to map out a strategy for containing the massive oil spill.
More oil has already spilled from the Jiyyeh plant than leaked from the Erika oil tanker into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of France in 1999.
Officials warn that if all the oil from the damaged facility, 50 kilometres south of Beirut, were to seep into the sea, the environmental fallout could rival the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill that devastated Alaska’s Prince William Sound.