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Lebanon Oil Spill a Byproduct of War


During last year's war between Israel and Lebanon, Israeli air strikes against a Lebanese power plant led to a major oil spill off the Lebanese coast. The United Nations says contamination levels along much of the coastline are returning to normal, but some of the damage done by the spill may be irreversible.

The Lebanese government calls it the most significant environmental catastrophe in the country's history, and as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, coastal communities are still struggling with the spill's economic impact.


PETER KENYON: On a sunny winter morning, the (unintelligible) harbor in the town of Byblos looks exquisite, with small wooden boats bobbing in the harbor and old men perched on rocks casting into the surf. Seventy-three-year-old Sayid Zamil Houra(ph) says for the visitor, Byblos may be as charming as ever, but there's no joy for the locals.

Mr. SAID ZAMIL HOURA: (Through translator) It was very bad here before of the oil spill. The fishermen couldn't fish, the tourists couldn't come. People couldn't swim, and people couldn't make a living.

KENYON: Israeli warplanes bombed the (unintelligible) power plants south of Beirut twice during the 34 day war with Hezbollah last summer, releasing a slick of heavy fuel oil that fouled some 95 miles of coastline.

Here in Byblos, some residents say the toxic stench of hydrocarbons emanating from the thick layer of sludge that coated this harbor drove them from their homes.

Just above the harbor is the impressive stone building that houses Pepe's de Byblos(ph), the venerable seafood restaurant where the likes of Charles de Gaulle, Marlon Brando and countless other recognizable faces have dined over the years.


Josephine Nassir(ph) stands on the terrace filled with neatly laid, empty tables and said she's glad the fisherman are working again, but the tourists are still staying away. With a wry smile, she says given the news lately, bus bombings on the 13th of this month, a huge demonstration on the 14th, she's not surprised.

Ms. JOSEPHINE NASSIR: (Through translator) We're always afraid we will get an attack the 14th. Instead, something happens on the 13th. Then we waited for the reaction to the 14th. I mean, you know, what tourist is going to come here?

KENYON: The United Nations Development Program reports the damage to Lebanon's water quality is probably temporary, but other impacts of the spill could be long-lasting. Environmentalist Wahil Hamaidin(ph) stands on a public beach in Beirut and describes the forces that keep bringing oil back after the beach has been cleaned. He says in the summer, the ocean tends to pile new sand on the beach and suck it back offshore in the winter.

Mr. WAHIL HAMAIDIN (Environmentalist): So in the summer, a lot of sand piled on this beach above the oil, and then a new layer of oil coming. So it was a like a Black Forest cake, the sand here. One meter deep, you could see layers of sand and oil. Now in the winter, the sea pulls back the sand, and the layers start to show.

KENYON: The U.N. and other experts held back from coming to Lebanon immediately after the spill because of the danger from the ongoing war. That allowed the oil to disperse, harden and sink into the sank or to the seabed.

Hamaidin says despite heroic cleanup efforts, they've only managed to collect about five percent of the spilled oil. But he's proud of what has been done, especially the creative, low-tech efforts of local fishermen, such as the divers who literally rolled slabs of semi-hardened oil up like carpets and carried them off the sea floor.

Mr. HAMAIDIN: The heroes in the clean-up of the oil spill are actually the fishermen themselves. They know the sea, they know how the water moves, so they were actually able, with little resources, to develop new techniques to do cleanup.

KENYON: Many Lebanese want to see Israel pay compensation for the damages done, possibly by putting money into an Eastern Mediterranean oil spill restoration fund. Israel has rejected assertions that the attack that caused the spill was a war crime and has made no offer of compensation.

For the many Lebanese who make their living from sea and shore, the coming spring offers a recovering coastline, but not a recovering political situation, suggesting another difficult tourist season ahead.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.