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Lebanon coast escapes oil spill damage

January 23, 2007 By Kerri Smith This article courtesy of Nature News.

But war may have caused other long-lasting environmental problems.

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When Israeli bombs hit the Jiyyeh power plant in Lebanon last July, 15,000 tonnes of fuel oil spilled into the sea yet another bit of bad news in the war between the two countries. But a 23 January report suggests that the marine environment has been spared long-term damage.

Oil pollution from the plant has been largely contained, experts say, even though the month-long war initially hampered clean-up efforts. Environmental problems remain, though, including damage to factories, industrial sites, agricultural land and infrastructure that continues to pose a threat to public health. Leaked chemicals are polluting water supplies, and unexploded bombs are stopping farmers from resuming their work.

For coastal areas, however, contamination levels have fallen back to the baseline expected for that part of the Mediterranean Sea, even after the oil spill. "We were expecting it to spread wider," says Muralee Thummarukudy, chief scientist with the post-conflict assessment team. "We did not see levels that were alarming or unusual."

Nature will do its business.
Georges Berbari
Lebanese Ministry of the Environment
His team of environmental experts, from the United Nations Environment Programme and the Lebanese environment ministry, tested the level of polluting chemicals at nearly 30 sites along the Lebanese coastline, from Tyre in the south to Tripoli in the north. They measured the concentrations of various chemicals in samples of sediment and in oysters.

These are sensitive indicators of pollution, says Malcolm Jones, a marine pollution researcher at the University of Plymouth, UK, because "they take up chemicals in more or less the same proportions as they occur in the environment. They act a bit like a sponge."

Cause for concern

The researchers also tested the soil around the power plant, and found more worrying results. Levels of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are linked to an elevated risk of cancer, were higher than normal, which may pose a health risk to people living in the immediate area. The levels of these chemicals in molluscs and sea sediment, however, were normal compared with other similar regions of coastline.

The main issue now, says Thummarukudy, is the oil that remains on the sea floor near the power plant. While hardened on the seabed, it doesn't endanger marine life, but Thummarukudy worries that, if not cleaned up, it may become resuspended in the water and spread over a wider area.

The clean-up operations began almost as soon as the war ended last August. Several countries, including the United States and Switzerland, sent teams to help, with a team of Italian divers responsible for the underwater area around the Jiyyeh plant. The Lebanese environment ministry hired local fishermen, whose work was jeopardized by the spill, to join the efforts.

Despite the good news on the spill, the clean-up work hasn't finished yet, says Georges Berbari, head of the ministry's oil-spill operations team. The next phase of cleaning, he says, will probably involve high-pressure washing of rocks and sand along the affected coastline, and collecting the remaining hardened oil from the sea-bed around the power plant.

Winter's rough seas and storms are hindering the clean-up, but at the same time the choppy waves have helped to disperse the oil and lessen its impact on wildlife and the coastline. "Nature will do its business," Berbari says. "In spring, when the weather is calmer, there will be more to do."

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