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by Haider Rizvi

Israeli Airstrikes Cause Massive Lebanon Oil Spill

(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- As Israeli bombs continue to fall from the skies across Lebanon, destroying homes, parks, roads, bridges, forests, hospitals and power stations, scientists say the enormous amount of toxic waste unleashed by the attack will continue to affect human lives and the environment long after the fighting is over.

"The destruction is so huge that it may take a decade to recover," Zia Mian, a researcher with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, told IPS. "The consequences of environmental destruction will be felt for a long time, especially the problem of unexploded bombs and munitions."

In recent days, United Nations officials and environmental groups based in Lebanon have made similar observations, amid calls for an assessment of the environmental damage resulting from the bombing and its adverse consequences on human health and livelihood.

Officials at the UN Environment Program (UNEP) have expressed grave concern over the oil spill that has polluted over 140 kilometres of the Lebanese coastline and has now spread north into Syrian waters, with no possibility of a cleanup operation in sight.

Though mindful of "the complexity and political implications," the head of UNEP, Achim Steiner, warned on Monday that in the worst case scenario, if the oil leaked into the Mediterranean Sea, the Lebanese spill could "well rival" the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989.

In that incident, a tanker hit Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef in the U.S. state of Alaska and spilled an estimated 11 to 30 million gallons of crude oil, immediately killing thousands of birds, fish and marine mammals.

The latest spill occurred some three weeks ago when Israeli war planes hit the Jiyyeh power plant. Since then, the Lebanese government has made several calls for cleanup operations, but continued Israeli bombardment has made it impossible for UNEP to intervene.

"Many are appalled that, more than three weeks into this crisis, there has been no on-the-ground assessment to support the Lebanese government, no moves possible towards a clean-up, and indeed few practical measures to contain the further spread of the slick," Steiner said.

"We are dealing with a very serious incident," he added, noting that although much needs to be done, it was practically impossible to take any action while fighting continues in the region.

Stressing the need for intense cooperation between international actors and the governments in the Mediterranean region, Steiner said UNEP was ready to work with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as well as the European Commission in undertaking clean-up efforts.

On Monday, UNEP sent a marine biologist to Syria to evaluate damage from the oil spill. Many fear that the spill has affected marine species such as sea turtles and bluefin tuna.

Scientists say there is a spawning area for bluefin tuna in the eastern Mediterranean. Following its reproductive season between May and July, at this time of the year the tuna's egg and larvae float on the water's surface and may well have suffered the consequences of the spill.

"The oil slick definitely poses a threat to biodiversity," said Ezio Amato, a UNEP consultant. "Because tuna's eggs and larvae float on the water surface, they can be directly affected by this oil slick, with serious consequences." UNEP officials said they sent Amato to Syria at Damascus's request, where environmental officials are increasingly worried about the consequences of the spill and its adverse impact on the livelihood of coastal communities and marine species.

The assessment effort is supported by the Barcelona Convention, a regional treaty created in 1976 to prevent and eliminate pollution of the Mediterranean Sea and enhance the region's costal and marine environment for sustainable development.

As part of global efforts to promote sustainable development, both Israel and Lebanon have signed an international treaty that requires governments to take "urgent actions" to reduce the threat of further loss of biodiversity on Earth by the year 2010.

On several occasions, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other officials have stressed the need for an international treaty to ban degradation of the environment as a weapon of war, but so far their calls have gone unheeded.

Experts estimate the spill caused by the Israeli bombing of the Lebanese power plant could be around 45,000 tons. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez slick was slightly under 40,000 tons.

With no imminent end to the bombing in sight, environmental activists in Lebanon say they fear further destruction of the natural habitat and resources of their country, which is known for its lush green valleys, orchards and rich biodiversity.

"The escalating Israeli attacks did not only kill civilians and destroy its infrastructure," said Nina Jamal, president of Green Line, a group based in Lebanon, "but it is also annihilating its environment. The beautiful Lebanese white beaches are covered with a black layer, and fuel can be smelled from a good distance."

Since the war started a month ago, about 1,000 people have been killed and over 3,000 wounded, and some 900,000 civilians have been displaced.

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Albion Monitor   August 9, 2006   (

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