Israel asked to help clean up coastal oil spill near Beirut

"Pollutants could remain in water for a century."

Lebanon's Mediterranean coast is facing a crisis of its own as oil from a spill a month ago continues to contaminate the water. The spill started when an explosion at the Jiweh power plant south of Beirut released 15,000-30,000 tons of heavy fuel oil into the sea. While the water currents are carrying the pollutants north and away from Israel, the United National Environment Program-Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP-MAP) has called on member states to aid the clean-up effort and Israel has answered. The cleanup was to have begun on Sunday but this was moved to Tuesday with hopes that a cease-fire would be in place by then. UNEP-MAP has 22 members, countries that border the Mediterranean. Friends of the Earth-Middle East has asked Defense Minister Amir Peretz to guarantee the safety of the volunteers performing the cleanup. "We are responding positively with ideas for assistance in equipment and expertise," said Ya'acov Keidar, an official in the Foreign Ministry's Middle East department. "I don't know if they will eventually want it, but we are responding positively. We are checking what can be done in order to assist." The cause of the oil spill remains unknown, according to Keidar. Some media reports have accused the Israel Air Force of hitting the plant and causing the oil spill, but "we won't know until after the war ends and it can be checked thoroughly. Nobody can ask Israel to take responsibility for something we are unsure about," he said. Luis Colasimone, the information officer for UNEP-MAP, agrees. The reports she has received from the Lebanese Ministry of Environment and local authorities there say that an explosion causing the spill, but none placed the blame on a particular party. "The Ministry of Environment in Lebanon didn't indicate what set it off," Colasimone said in a telephone interview. "Media reports have said, because of the ongoing conflict, it can be called a bombing, but that hasn't been indicated in any press releases we've seen. I don't know where they get it from," he said. Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of Friends of the Earth-Middle East, called for an investigation into why the oil tanks were targeted. He claimed the IAF had definitely bombed the tanks. UNEP-MAP had sent an expert to Syria from one of its regional activity centers, the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre (REMPEC), because of the difficulty in entering Lebanon. Colasimone said the organization needed to retrieve samples of the oil from the sea and from rocks to be able to better plan a cleanup. Because the Mediterranean is a semi-closed sea, the pollutants could remain in the water for up to a century, according to Colasimone. A military source said the IDF helped coordinate a clean-up effort in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, last week but had not heard about any other such plans. "Maybe they will coordinate, but so far they haven't," the military source said. The effects of the spill for the coast of Lebanon and possibly for countries to the north will be long lasting. "The oil spill will first and foremost affect the marine life in the sea," said Bromberg. "It's killing breeding areas for fish, killing marine life swimming in the oil spots directly and other marine life covered by the oil slick." The marine habitat near the coast will be damaged if not destroyed by the oil. A prime example of the effect on marine life is the green turtle. They have already laid their eggs, which will soon hatch. If there is oil on the sand and in the water near the hatchlings, the likelihood of these endangered animals surviving is slim. "It's a priority for the government and the citizens and that's why the environmental community is coming out so quickly under risk to do their part to clean up," said Bromberg.