Scientists are scrambling to control what is being described as the worst environmental disaster ever to hit Lebanon. An Israeli attack on a power station last month has leaked 15,000 tons of oil into the Mediterranean. The spill has gone untreated for the past four weeks. We go to Beirut to speak with Lebanon’s environment minister and an environmental activist working in the area. [includes rush transcript]
As the Israeli assault on Lebanon enters its 30th day, scientists are scrambling to control what is being described as the worst environmental disaster ever to hit Lebanon.
Four weeks ago the Israeli military attacked a power station on the Lebanese coast, blowing up the plant’s five large fuel tanks.
Since then around 15,000 tons of oil have leaked into the Mediterranean Sea. Satellite images show the spill has already reached as far as north as Syria. 70 miles of coastline have already been polluted. Environmentalists fear the spill could also end up affecting Cyprus, Turkey and Greece.
For the past month the oil spill has gone untreated because of the ongoing Israeli air attacks and naval blockade. One United Nations official described the situation as an "environmental massacre." Friends of the Earth has warned that the spill, if left unchecked, threatens to be the greatest environmental disaster ever in the Eastern Mediterranean.
- Yacoub Sarraf, Environment Minister of Lebanon.
- Wael Hmaidan, coordinator of the Oil Spill Working Group, a coalition of environmental organizations in Lebanon. He is a former Greenpeace campaigner for the Arab World. He is also an organizer with the peace group Lil Hayat, a coalition of 40 Lebanese organizations and NGOs that held a peace rally in Beirut last week.
AMY GOODMAN: Lebanon’s Environment Minister Yacoub Sarraf will be joining us on the phone from Beirut, and we’re joined by Wael Hmaidan, a coordinator of the Oil Spill Working Group, a newly formed coalition of environmental groups in Lebanon. He’s the former Greenpeace Campaigner for the Arab World. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
WAEL HMAIDAN: Hello.
AMY GOODMAN: Hi. Wael is joining us from Beirut. Can you describe the situation of the oil spill, where it stands now?
WAEL HMAIDAN: Well, where it stands there, it’s a complete catastrophe. And I’m not exaggerating here. We’re in a state of total devastation of our marine environment. The oil spill, which has happened more than three weeks ago, it is — no one has started the cleanup process yet. It has spread over 100 kilometers of Lebanese coastline. It has reached Syria, contaminated several kilometers in Syria, and there is the possibility it will reach Turkey or Greece.
The problem is that this issue is not getting the importance it deserves. The amount is 15,000 tons, which is almost half of the amount of the Exxon Valdez spill. Although it’s smaller than the Exxon Valdez spill, UNEP, which is the United Nations Environmental Programme, has labeled the spill as more dangerous than the Exxon Valdez. Unfortunately, all the things happening around — the massacres, the attacks — have made this spill as another collateral damage, and it didn’t get the importance it deserves. If this spill had happened without any other disturbing news, it would be the event of the year and the [inaudible].
We have not started cleanup process. And every day we delay, the damage is growing exponentially. The impact on the environment is growing. Also the cleanup will be even much harder, because the oil will start to stick on the rocks, be absorbed on the rock, go deeper into the sand, and disperse more in the sea and the seabed.
So what we have decided as NGOs to do is to basically go down on the ground and start cleanup as soon as possible with or without ceasefire, because there is a danger still to go and clean up when you’re under attack. There are bombs falling on our heads. And the sea, you cannot use any boats or planes, because we’re under siege. But the situation cannot take it anymore. We will suffer from this environmental problem for decades. It’s going to affect our ecosystem for years.
And the costs now of the damage have exceeded $200 million. And they’re growing daily. So, I don’t know how to express it more, but it is in a state of total devastation. Our fisheries have been struck at their heart. Our fishermen, we suffer for years to come. Our tourism will be impacted for years to come. And now, [inaudible] issue.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re also joined on the line from Lebanon by Yacoub Sarraf, the Environment Minister of Lebanon. Welcome to Democracy Now!
YACOUB SARRAF: Yes, good morning. I wish you a very pleasant day. And I thank you for taking the trouble of calling us in Lebanon to try to transmit whatever we are trying to achieve and what we are feeling and thinking.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us about the spill? Has the source of the spill now been shut down? And what is your government able to do at this stage in terms of cleanup?
YACOUB SARRAF: Yes, we did manage last week to prevent any more spillage from reaching the sea. We have erected earth barriers with bulldozers to prevent any more spillage. Moreover, we finally managed to turn off the blazing fire, which had been burning in the fuel storage facilities for approximately twelve days.
AMY GOODMAN: Right now, how difficult is it to get to the area?
YACOUB SARRAF: It goes without saying that the area where potentially we have a spread spill is a huge area, spanning approximately 140 kilometers in length and up to 20 kilometers in width. Unluckily, we haven’t had yet, until now, any security clearance to approach the waters. And it goes without saying that the whole Lebanese territorial waters are under embargo. So the only access we are having is on the shoreline, and we have managed to survey the whole length of the part of the shoreline which has been already hit by the spill.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And have you communicated at all with the Israeli government or the United States or the UN about the necessity to get some kind of clearance to be able to begin the cleanup?
YACOUB SARRAF: It goes without saying that we have had contact, as early as the 18th of the month, with the United Nations Environment Programme, the Mediterranean Action Plan and with the REMPEC, which is the Response Emergency Marine Centre. And during our first contact, we needed more of an assessment capacity and along with a treatment. And we even asked to have access for a small boat to be able to go out in the sea and assess. That was denied. We asked for aerial photographs to be provided. That was denied, too.
And we finally got the first satellite imagery, being radar-supplied imagery. We got it on the 2nd of August. And this is where, looking at the image of this spill, I have sent an appeal, not only for saving Lebanese environmental coast, but also to put Turkey and Cyprus on alert status, because it looks that parts of the spill, which we cannot define in terms of magnitude right now, might be drifting and might hit Turkey and Syria, knowing that we have had information through the United Nations Environment Programme, that part of the spill has already hit the Syrian shoreline.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to the Lebanese Environment Minister Yacoub Sarraf. Looking at articles on BBC and other places, it says, "Marine experts from Inforac, an organisation with links to the United Nations Environment Programme, issued a warning [this week] that the raid on the Jiyyeh Power plant in mid-July could pose a cancer risk to people living in the area. Spokeswoman Simonetta Lombardo said the spill of fuel oil was a 'high-risk toxic cocktail made up of substances which cause cancer and damage to the endocrine system.'" Minister Yacoub Sarraf, can you comment on this?
YACOUB SARRAF: Yeah, I think it goes without saying that the environmental impact of such an aggression is not only due to the spill. You have to note that we have had a huge fire blazing in those plants for approximately twelve days. And with all the emissions of toxic gases and fumes, we have experienced outfalls of carbon deposits all the way to Beirut, which is something like 30 kilometers north of the area of the disaster. And we can assess that one-third of the Lebanese territory has been hit by those poisonous fumes. There are fumes which are emanating from the fire itself. And that will have definitely violent problems in respiratory systems and in the agriculture factor.
Now, about the spill itself, yes, studies have shown an increased rate in cancer for areas which are subject to such a spill. We definitely have other risks, apart from endocrinology mis-operations. We also have nausea, vomiting, respiratory tract infection. We also predict a drop in the total immunity systems of the people who are exposed to such a thing, not to mention definitely all the problems of skin diseases and whatnot for any living organism which comes in contact with the spill.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to get back for a moment to Wael Hmaidan, who’s with the Oil Spill Working Group and is also with the peace group, Lil Hayat, a coalition of 40 Lebanese organizations and NGOs in Lebanon. This whole issue in a broader context: obviously, in times of war or terrorist actions, these oil facilities are especially prone to — they’re fragile in terms of their ability to be attacked and then to create huge environmental problems. Your response to the ability of countries to be able to handle these issues?
YACOUB SARRAF: It goes without saying that effectively, because of international regulation, those storage facilities have a minimum amount of safety features. And not to mention — to mention a few, I can say that we have protective enclosement walls around the tanks, so that if you have a spill, a part of the spill which is out of the tank is contained and in an open enclosure. And unluckily, for this attack in particular, we have had the first attack occurring on the 13th of July, which started a major fire. At the time we have used whatever foam and whatever capacity to extinguish the fire we had, and we managed to reduce a lot the risk of explosion of those tanks.
AMY GOODMAN: And also, I just wanted to get in a last word from Wael Hmaidan, who is the organizer with Lil Hayat and held a peace rally in Beirut last week on this larger issue — we’re talking about the environment, but then the larger issue of functioning in Beirut right now. What were you calling for in your peace rally?
WAEL HMAIDAN: Well, definitely the first thing we need is an immediate and final ceasefire. I think it is something for the good of everyone. The war now is not benefiting anyone. It is definitely causing environmental, humanitarian and other disasters. At the same time, it’s strengthening the Hezbollah position. By the way, for the people outside, we here on the ground, this is what the people are thinking: the more Israel is bombing and causing all these disasters, from different kinds Hezbollah is getting more and more support. So, if anyone wants to achieve any objective, political or humanitarian or military, that can only happen in proper negotiations and definitely not in ceasefire — not with having a war or not achieving a ceasefire.
AMY GOODMAN: Wael Hmaidan, I want to thank you very much for joining us, coordinator of the Oil Spill Working Group, a coalition of environmental groups, also part of the peace group Lil Hayat; and also want to thank Yacoub Sarraf, Environment Minister of Lebanon.