Oily legacy of war mars Lebanon coast

A major oil spill that resulted from bombing during the Hizbullah-Israel war is only slowly being cleaned up.

A cascade of seaside buildings in this northern Lebanon village glows pink in the Mediterranean sunset. But the rocky shore below remains a thick, sullen black – marred by the residue of 4 million gallons of oil that polluted 75 miles of coastline when it spilled from a power plant bombed by Israel during last year's Israel-Hizbullah war.

The oil is an unsightly reminder of the war's devastation and a symbol of a halting recovery that has been hampered by a paralyzed government and a heavy reliance on foreign aid. Months of political deadlock and battling Islamic militants, as well as periodic bombings and assassinations, have also complicated postwar reconstruction.

Lebanon's government claimed in July to have distributed $230 million to more than 70,000 people so far. But efforts have fallen far short of reaching the 1 million people displaced during the war and repairing the large number of damaged buildings and infrastructure. While 51 bridges damaged during the war have been rebuilt, 40 still await repair. Entire neighborhoods in South Lebanon remain in ruin.

With so many problems still needing attention, the oil spill remains a low priority for the Lebanese government and international donors.

"The political situation is really crippling ... internally and internationally," says environmental activist Wael Hmaidan. "It's impossible to get the spotlight on anything but politics."

The government's initial $15 million cleanup, which began after the war ended last August and concluded in February, swept up 60 to 70 percent of the oil and helped contain most of the spill's economic and environmental impact. That represented a step forward – given that the spill caused $200 million in environmental damage and $250 million more in indirect costs, according to estimates by Greenline, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization.

People can now swim and fish. But they must avoid obvious globs of leftover oil, and large patches of thick muck are plastered on the rocky shores that make up most of the affected coast. Unknown amounts are still buried in the seafloor.

Both sources of residual oil could repollute the sea if left untouched. Marine life killed during last year's spill or still contaminated today also poses a longer-term threat to the ecosystem.

Yet cleanup efforts halted six months ago. The government needs to raise another $135 million to finish the job.

The Ministry of Environment (MoE), tasked with coordinating cleanup, defends the half-year hiatus.

Just one-tenth of the money needed has come in, and that includes the estimated value of equipment and expert advice, points out MoE spokesperson Ghada Mitri.

Operations stopped in February because of harsh weather conditions, she says. April and May were used to assess progress and compile a list of 32 locations that still need cleaning.

Now, the MoE is soliciting grants to resume work. One donor has been secured so far; it's still in the bidding process for contractors.

The pace ofcleanup is "normal," MoE director-general Berj Hatjian said at a press conference last month. "There are major disasters in which the pollution remains for years.... For Lebanon, our 60 to 70 percent completion is pretty good, [especially since] this oil spill started during war."

But environmentalists say the government and contracted companies, at best, have been inefficient.

Most of the oil collected was free-floating; the hard part – pollution stuck to the rocks – remains untouched.

The contracted companies that were assigned most of the work should have accomplished much more with the millions of dollars at their disposal, argues environmentalist Mohamed el-Sarji. The NGO of which he is a member, Bahr Lubnan, was allotted a small section to clean last year.

Left as is, the oil is reentering the sea, says Richard Steiner, a marine conservation scientist at the University of Alaska and consultant on this spill.

"They should have been [cleaning] seven days a week, weather permitting, till it was done," he says, adding that a half-year delay like Lebanon's rarely happens.

Oil on the shore can melt in the summer heat and ooze into the water. Storms can pluck oil from seafloor nooks and crannies and throw it back onto the beach.

Pollution has already resurfaced at important sites like the Palm Islands, Lebanon's flagship marine reserve off the coast of Tripoli. "There's oil all over the place. It looks like it hasn't even been touched," says Professor Steiner, who visited there last month.

A 3,000-sq.-ft. "rubbery mat" of oil drifted ashore this summer at Eddé Sands, a high-end beach resort 22 miles north of Beirut.

Some of the free-floating oil collected last year is still sitting in bags and drums on the beach, soaking in rays like the sunbathers next to them. They're sealed in an environmentally sound way, the MoE says, but activists have documented several broken containers.

Meanwhile, oil or no oil, many fishermen and swimmers are reclaiming their coastline.

Raif Nadir, a retired banker and member of Bahr Lubnan, catches a few pounds every morning in his seaside village of el-Barbara, north Lebanon. Children play in the water near the beige rocks of a small harbor, still stained with last year's oil.

People used to swim and hang out about 100 yards down, Mr. Nadir says. "Now it's very dirty and we have no money to clean up, [so] we look where it is clean and we sit there."

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