Cleanup of a massive oil slick along Lebanon's coast has barely begun
more than one month after Israel's bombing of a power plant unleashed
At a bend in the boardwalk along the edge of Beirut, thick and nauseating black water laps against about 20 flat-bottomed fishing boats sheltered in a cove toward the south of the city.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that between 10,000 and 15,000 tons (11,000-16,500 tons) of fuel oil leaked from the Jiyeh electric power plant in mid-July after two Israeli air raids. The seaside plant, 30 kilometers south of Beirut, burned for 12 days.
The spill has polluted about 200 kilometers (124 miles) of the Lebanese and Syrian coasts, the European Union said.
On Friday the Lebanese civil defense agency, advised by Danish experts, began to clean oil at the cove, and at the Raouche port in Beirut.
Teams have also been at work 40 kilometers north at the ancient port city and tourist site of Byblos, where in 10 days they extracted 250 tons (275 tons) of oil, said Ian Nedsa, one of the European Union's Danish experts in Beirut.
At the capital's only public beach, Ramlet el-Baida, local environmental group Greenline started on Thursday collecting polluted sand after two interruptions by the police.
Along with Jiyeh itself, these are the sites most affected by the oil, said Mohammed el-Sarji, president of the Lebanese professional divers' union who photographed the sea bed to assess the spill's impact.
"The presence of oil was detected there to a depth of between three and five meters (9.9 and 16.5 feet) and a breadth of eight meters off Jiyeh," he said.
Minister of Environment Yaacoub Sarraf said all available equipment is at the scene. "But it's not enough," he said.
"Today we received pumps and floating dams from Norway and Kuwait and we are waiting for more from France, Jordan and Spain."
Sarraf said an Israeli blockade has hindered the cleanup effort.
Israel imposed the air, sea and land blockade when war broke out with Hizbullah on July 12, and it remains in place despite a ceasefire that took effect on August 14.
Sarraf said he is hoping a United Nations helicopter will be able to fly over the area on Monday or Tuesday to assess the spill's spread.
Immediate helicopter surveys and a joint effort to clean up to 30 coastal sites in Lebanon were part of a recovery plan unveiled this month by senior officials from the United Nations, the European Union and regional states meeting in Greece.
The operation would cost at least 64 million dollars.
Israeli authorities have given safety assurances for aerial UN surveillance missions, the United Nations Environment Program has said.
"Certain beaches that had been cleaned, like in Byblos, were soiled again by oil that stays on the surface," said Gaby Khalaf, director of the National Centre of Marine Research in Batroun, north of Beirut.
Rick Steiner, an American expert dispatched by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), said "the marine and coastal ecosystem is more contaminated than was thought."
After cleaning the beaches and rocks, it will be "indispensable to recover the maximum amount of oil again from the surface and especially at the bottom of the water," Steiner said, recommending use of remote-control robots to collect pollutants from the depths.
Greenline has called the oil spill the biggest environmental disaster in the Mediterranean basin.
Last week the Finnish presidency of the EU urged member states to provide more technical assistance, saying the cleanup could take years.(AFP photo shows Lebanese volunteers cleaning Ramlet el-Bayda beach in Beirut)