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French Version

Oil-spill spat loses no momentum in 2007

Accusations fly over clean-up efforts, as waste continues to pose danger to ecosystem

Almost a year and a half has passed since Israeli warplanes bombed the Jiyyeh power plant on the Mediterranean coast south of Beirut, and yet the ongoing clean-up of the ensuing oil spill still provokes almost endless recrimination.

Accusations continued to fly this year over last winter's first phase of the clean-up, while environmental groups also warn of the destruction of micro-organisms and unique ecosystems during the ongoing second clean-up phase along the coastline. The Lebanese company Promar is cleaning fuel from rocks at 23 sites from Tabarja to Enfeh, and the Environment Ministry admits it is not requiring its contractors to consult with marine experts before cleaning.

In smaller projects, the Spanish government is handling the final work at the Palm Island Nature Reserve in North Lebanon, while Norway will pay for clean-up at lower-priority sites: two in Akkar, two in Kesrouan, a lagoon north of Jounieh and near the Jiyyeh plant, the ministry has said.

Promar owner Tony Chamoun told The Daily Star previously that "a lot" of the intermediate fuel oil from the spill remained on the rocks, although he promised to complete the job by the March deadline and within the $683,000 budget mandated by the ministry. Promar has collected about 700 bags of contaminated sand from Jbeil alone, from the port to the beach occupied by the resorts Edde Sands and La Voile Bleue, Chamoun added.

Meanwhile, Wael Hmaidan, executive director of the non-governmental organization (NGO) IndyAct, has said Promar should have marine biologists advise it on the clean-up and should have scientists monitor the fragile coastal ecosystems.

"We have unique and important micro-organisms and ecosystems on our rocks," Hmaidan said. "They require, really, experts and professionals in marine biology. I'm not concerned about the time it will take, but how it will be done. This is our main concern."

However, the ministry will not "force" Promar to consult with marine experts, said Ghada Mitri, the ministry's oil-spill communications officer.

"It's up to the contractor," she said. "Phase II work is based on clean-up of rocks, nothing else. The work is focused on that and not the ecosystem in total."

Both sides have at least agreed that a true assessment of the effects of the spill and the clean-up is made impossible by Lebanon's failure to monitor its coastal flora and fauna before, during and after the spill, when some 12,500-15,000 tons of intermediate fuel oil from Jiyyeh fouled more than 100 kilometers of Lebanese and Syrian coast.

In addition, the environmental NGO Bahr Loubnan has lambasted the ministry for wasting the favorable summer weather and beginning the second phase of the clean-up in October, with harsh winter weather weeks away.

"Promar should be finished" in October, said Mohammad Sarji, who led Bahr Loubnan's 2006 clean-up of the coast from south of Jiyyeh to the Ramlet al-Baida beach south of Beirut. "We should go into winter with the beaches cleaned. Unfortunately, the ministry doesn't think like environmentalists."

A lack of money was the only reason the ministry did not run the bid process and get the second phase of the clean-up under way earlier, said Berj Hatjian, the ministry's director general who has been running the institution since Environment Minister Yaaqoub Sarraf resigned in November 2006.

"When there is no money available, you cannot do much," Hatjian told The Daily Star in October. "When the money was available, the money was expedited. When you work in the domain of environment, funds are not always readily available."

A soon-to-be-released World Bank study put the environmental degradation caused by the oil spill at $205 million through the end of 2008, out of the $730 million overall environmental damage wreaked by Israel upon Lebanon, Hatjian added.

Aside from concerns on the clean-up, the NGOs also continue to sound the alarm over leaky bags and drums of oily sand on Ramlet al-Baida beach, although the Environment Ministry has said the waste does not pose an environmental hazard. The ministry has not published a timetable to take away the polluted material.

The bags and drums on Ramlet al-Baida, filled with oily sand collected in the first phase, are oozing the fuel back onto the beach, said Hmaidan.

"We've already seen oil seeping out of the bags and drums," he said, adding that he had photographs showing the seepage. "I'm worried, because ... winter storms are coming back. There's a possibility that all the oil that's collected in the bags will come out and go back into the sea."

The ministry's Mitri has said it was "a priority" to remove the bags and drums. "It depends on so many factors," she said. "When you're working in a country that has external factors like political upheavals, there's not much you can control."

The ministry plans to load the waste into containers and store it at the Zahrani power plant in South Lebanon, and then the ministry will decide how to dispose of the material, she added.

She denied that the bags and drums represented a threat to the environment.

"They don't," she said, adding that the waste also spent much of last winter parked at Ramlet al-Baida. "There is no threat of them being carried out. If there's any oil seeping back out, it's very localized."

"There weren't any significant leaks" this summer, she added. "These bags are very, very heavy. The bags are huge. [One bag] can't actually be lifted by a human being."

Bahr Loubnan, which collected most of the detritus stored on Ramlet al-Baida, also remains a lightning rod for criticism because of its efforts. Imad Saoud, aquatic sciences professor at the American University of Beirut, has said Bahr Loubnan eroded the Ramlet al-Baida beach while seeking financial and political gain and Bahr Loubnan's approach led to chaos when clean-up work began.

Bahr Loubnan, funded by the family of assassinated billionaire former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, offered to do the entire clean-up endeavor shortly after the war ended. The Environment Ministry rejected the NGO's offer and instead parceled out bits of coastline for various international organizations to clean.

Bahr Loubnan, meanwhile, secured acceptance of its offer from Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, formerly a finance minister under Hariri, and the NGO cleaned the Ramlet al-Baida beach as well as oil on the seabed from the beach southward to just past Jiyyeh.

At Ramlet al-Baida, "the beach is now smaller" because Bahr Loubnan removed so much polluted sand, said Saoud. "A lot of it doesn't come back. Who is Bahr Loubnan? They got a lot of the money. I don't know if they really made money, but they used it for political gain" to demonstrate the good will of the Hariri familySaad-Hariri-Profile Sep-07 .

Sarji countered that Bahr Loubnan had not harmed the beach in the least.

"Imad Saoud has no clue what's going on with the oil spill," Sarji said. "It's completely false. No sand was taken from Ramlet al-Baida. We honestly did not take any sand. Dr. Saoud has a lot of academic experience, but he has little experience on the ground."

"The clean-up that has been done in Lebanon is the best clean-up that has ever been done anywhere in the world," Sarji added. "We stayed on the beach for 11 months, and I didn't see ... Dr. Saoud once."

Regardless of all the allegations about the mishandling of the clean-up and environmental degradation, one positive aspect is that any oil residue left on Lebanon's shores will disappear within a decade, said David Little, a oil-spill consultant from England brought in by the United Nations Environmental Program to inspect Lebanon's coast.

"Ultimately, bugs eat it," Little said.

Beirut 28-12-2007
The Daily Star

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