United Nations Unveils Action Plan to Clean Up Lebanon Oil Spill

"The Beach is Yours, Keep it Clean."

At an August 17 meeting in Athens, United Nations officials, Mediterranean environment ministers, and scientific experts agreed on an International Assistance Action Plan to clean up last month’s oil spill along the Lebanese coast. The spill, caused by Israeli missile attacks on a Lebanese power plant, resulted in the release of an estimated 10,000–15,000 tons of oil into the Mediterranean Sea, ultimately affecting some 150 kilometers of coastline in Lebanon and Syria. The incident is considered Lebanon’s worst-ever environmental disaster.

According to the action plan, the first task is to use aerial surveys to assess the amount of oil remaining at sea so an effective clean-up strategy can be developed. Computer models have estimated that nearly 80 percent of the oil washed up along the coastline, 20 percent evaporated, and less than 1 percent remains at sea. But the conflict has prevented an accurate assessment of the situation: a recent Greenpeace video, for example, notes that some of the oil is sinking to the sea floor and coating marine life with thick sludge.

Lebanon’s environment ministry estimates that it could take up to 10 years for the region’s coastal and marine ecosystems—home to such species as the bluefin tuna and the endangered Mediterranean green turtle—to recover from the spill damage, and that local fishing communities will be hit hard for at least 2–3 years. The oil residue also poses health risks to people in the area, though it is considered too early to gauge the level of threat.

The continued delay in removing the oil has exacerbated the problem: hostilities in the region officially ended on August 14, a full month after the spill occurred. Israeli authorities have given assurances of safe passage to make assessment and clean up possible. But with the entire effort expected to cost more than $65 million, full implementation of the action plan is contingent on funding. So far, the UN Environment Programme has committed $400,000, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) $200,000, and the European Union $13 million; the UN is appealing to the international community for additional funds, equipment, and personnel.

The action plan is the work of an Experts Working Group comprising various agencies led by the International Maritime Organization, United Nations Environment Programme, and Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre for the Mediterranean Sea (REMPEC).

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.