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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 August 2006, 14:07 GMT 15:07 UK
'Damage is done' to Lebanon coast
By Mark Kinver
Science and nature reporter, BBC News

A satellite image shows the extent of the slick

Lebanon's coastline could take up to 10 years to recover from a massive oil spill, the nation's environment minister has said.

Yacoub Sarraf said it was impossible to tackle the problem while the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel continued.

Marine experts have warned the spill could pose a cancer risk to people living in the affected areas.

The oil slick caused by Israeli bombing of a power station now covers 120km (75 miles) of the region's coasts.

Mr Sarraf said the delay had already severely affected the Lebanese shores.

"The damage has been done. It goes without saying that the whole fishing community will be hit for at least two or three years before the ecosystem re-establishes itself," he told BBC News.

We cannot get equipment, companies, labour or know-how to handle the problem
Yacoub Sarraf
Lebanese Environment Minister

"The tourism sector has also been hit for one or two seasons, and I am being very optimistic.

"But worse, if we do not intervene as soon as possible, the spill that is still floating off the coast of Lebanon could return and hit the shores again."

Mr Sarraf added that until there was a ceasefire, it would be impossible to begin any clean-up operation.

"We cannot get equipment, companies, labour or know-how to handle the problem," he said.

"If you compare this to any spill in history, intervention can help within the first 48-72 hours of the spill; we are already 20 days too late."

'Cancer risk'

Marine experts from Inforac, an organisation with links to the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), issued a warning on Tuesday 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".

Smoke rises from Jiyyeh power station (Image: AP)
The spill was caused by Israeli bombing of the Jiyyeh power station

The experts warned that the first people at risk from the "toxic spray" were the two million inhabitants of Beirut.

They also said that large quantities of dead fish along Lebanon's shores had been killed by the oil pollution.

A spokeswoman for Unep's Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) said it was too early to judge the impact of the pollution on the area's environment.

"It is premature to derive any conclusion on the type of oil and the potential health impacts before having conducted a sample analysis of the spill," said Luisa Colasimone.

"No conclusion can be done at this stage before we have people on the ground".

She added that a team of UN experts had arrived in Syria on Tuesday and one of their tasks would be to take samples of the oil spill.

Basma Badran, a Beirut-based spokeswoman for Greenpeace, said no clean-up operation would get under way until workers' safety could be guaranteed.

"It is an extremely risky task to make the proper assessment while under fire," she told BBC News.

"Several countries are on stand-by to send technical and expert assistance if the safety of their supplies and teams can be guaranteed."

Ms Badran added that international help was essential because the Lebanese authorities lacked any capacity to deal with such a large spill.

The Lebanese environment minister said the latest satellite images showed the oil slick was continuing to spread across the eastern Mediterranean Sea, threatening the coastlines of Turkey and possibly Cyprus.

However, a spokesman for Turkey's prime minister said the risk to the country's shores was "fairly limited", but aircraft were carrying out regular monitoring flights and that naval vessels were ready to deploy floating barriers if needed.

Environmental 'crisis' in Lebanon
31 Jul 06 |  Science/Nature

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