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Huge oil spill off Lebanon threatens to ravage life in the sea

BEIRUT, Lebanon—A massive oil spill off the coast of Lebanon is choking marine life, polluting the air as it evaporates and threatening to produce a long-lasting ecological disaster if Israel doesn't allow cleanup crews into the sea soon, environmental officials here warned Friday.

Between 10,000 and 15,000 tons of heavy fuel oil poured into the Mediterranean Sea after Israeli jets bombed a power plant south of Beirut in mid-July, during the first days of the war between Israel and Hezbollah militants. A month later, Israel's maritime blockade is still in place, making Lebanese coastal waters far too dangerous for specialized teams to get to work on the spill, environmental officials and activists say.

While international attention is focused on the human casualties of Israel's month-long bombing campaign, the Lebanese government also is pleading for help to save its pristine beaches and fragile underwater life.

"The turtles are hit, the dolphins are hit, the urchins are hit, the corals are hit," said Yacoub Saffar, Lebanon's environment minister. "We are facing a major ecosystem failure."

The spill already has reached Syrian waters north of Lebanon, and the governments of Cyprus, Turkey and Greece are on alert as strong tides spread what experts are calling the worst spill ever in the Mediterranean and a disaster comparable to the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. The United Nations, the European Union and Greenpeace International have dispatched experts to assess the damage, but no real cleanup can occur until the waters are safe again for boats.

Cleanup efforts are expected to take more than a year and cost more than $150 million.

The crisis began on July 13, when Israeli air strikes targeted fuel storage tanks at the Jieh power plant, about 19 miles south of Beirut. Another strike at the same site came two days later. The tanks caught fire and burned for weeks, as thousands of tons of industrial fuel oil washed into the Mediterranean. The early bombing campaign against Lebanese infrastructure was so intense, Saffar said, that the government was unable to conduct a comprehensive study of the damage. He added that it was only on Aug. 2, nearly three weeks after the last strike, that the Israelis provided aerial photos of the damage.

Satellite photos show the spill as a series of oily blobs darkening the aqua waters just half a mile from Lebanon's coast. The spill runs 93 miles long and more than 8 miles wide at some points, and it is contained in a small sea rather than an ocean.

"This is like a spoonful of sugar in a cup of tea. If you dump it in a bathtub, it's different," Saffar said. "And the Exxon Valdez treatment started 72 hours after the spill. We are 25 days late."

The damage already is visible at several beach resorts, where inky waves have washed oil-covered fish and birds ashore. The fuel's most volatile elements are the first to evaporate, which sends toxins into the air in and around Beirut, experts said. A greasy, gray film has shown up on cars near the coast, and the government warns that it's just a matter of time before the pollution causes headaches and nausea among Lebanese fishermen and coastal residents. The government has advised all Lebanese to stop eating seafood until the scope of the pollution is determined.

"All along the bay, it's just a strip of oil. The white sands have become black beaches," said Zeina Alhajj, who's studying the disaster for Greenpeace International. "The water is full of oil and debris and dead fish. We saw crabs full of oil, struggling, fighting."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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