Monday, August 07, 2006

Israeli Warplanes Strike Lebanese Oil Storage Depot - Environmental Catastrophe in Mediterranean Sea

Israel's bombing has triggered an oil spill that has created an environmental disaster. Oil pollution threatens the fishing and resort industries of Turkey, Cyprus, Greece and Lebanon:
Endangered turtles die after hatching from their eggs. Fish float dead off the coast. And flaming oil sends waves of black smoke toward the city.

And cleanup cannot start until the fighting stops, the United Nations says.

Meanwhile in northern Israel, huge swaths of forests and fields have been scorched by thousands of Hezbollah rocket strikes over the last three weeks. Experts said it would take nature at least 50 years to recover.

Charred branches stuck out of the ground like grave markers at the Mount Naftali Forest overlooking the Israeli border town of Kiryat Shemona, where entire fields have been reduced to heaps of ash and countless animals killed.

Amid the hundreds of deaths in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the environmental damage has attracted little attention. But experts warn that the long-term effects could be devastating.

About 110,000 barrels of oil poured into the Mediterranean two weeks ago after Israeli warplanes hit a coastal power plant. One tank is still burning.

An Israeli naval blockade and continuing military operations have made cleanup impossible.

"The immediate impact can be severe, but we have not been able to do an immediate assessment," said U.N. Environment Program executive director Achim Steiner in Geneva. "But the longer the spill is left untreated, the harder it will be to clean up."

The oil so far has slicked about one-third of Lebanon's coast, a 50-mile stretch centered on the Jiyeh plant 12 miles south of Beirut, said the country's environment minister, Yaacoub Sarraf. It has also drifted out into the Mediterranean, already hitting Syria.

Cyprus, Turkey and even Greece could be affected, experts warn.

"Chances are, our whole marine ecosystem facing the Lebanese shoreline is already dead," Sarraf said.

Lebanon, whose flag features a cedar tree and which is known by many as Green Lebanon for its forested mountains, is one of the few countries in the Arab world that pays attention to pollution. Minibuses that run on diesel are banned, and factories must abide by strict rules.

Now, large parts of the country's sandy and rocky beaches, normally a magnet for tourists, are covered with thick black oil. Many fishermen have been forced out of business, and people are growing scared to eat fish. Baby turtles, usually born in late summer, die after they swim into the polluted water shortly after hatching.

Syria was already experiencing similar problems, said Hassan Murjan, who heads the environment department in the Syrian city of Tartous.

"The oil pollution has caused serious environmental damage because our coast is rocky, and this is very dangerous for marine life," Murjan told the official news agency SANA.

Sarraf said last week: "We have no access to Lebanon territorial waters. This means that we are already 10 days delayed and, in terms of oil pollution, 10 days is a century."

Sarraf said it would cost $30 million to $50 million to clean up the shorelines, and possibly 10 times that much for the entire effort. Optimistic assessments suggest it will take at least six months for the shore cleanup and up to 10 years to reestablish "the ecosystem of the eastern Mediterranean as it was two weeks ago," he said.

In northern Israel, incoming rockets have destroyed 16,500 acres of forests and grazing fields, according to Michael Weinberger, the forest supervisor for the Jewish National Fund, the top administrator of Israel's forests. About one million trees were destroyed.

The Mount Naftali Forest was hit by a series of Katyusha rockets last week, setting it ablaze. Afternoon gusts carried the flames, wiping out 750 acres and trapping gazelles, coyotes, jackals, rabbits and snakes. The stench of smoke lingered a day later. What was once green is now black and gray. More rockets pounded the forest Wednesday.

Firefighters have been stretched to the limit battling the blazes caused by rockets in urban areas and are reluctant to enter the dry and potentially deadly terrain of the forest fires.

"With all due respect to nature, I will not risk the lives of my men for it," said Danny Hananiya, the fire department chief in the Northern Galilee, whose men have battled 1,200 fires. "It is painful to see, but I have to decide between nature and the firefighters."

Instead, the task of protecting nature falls on the shoulders of forest rangers, many of whom have risked their lives in recent weeks trying to limit the ecological damage.

"Every green tree standing here is a result of our work," said Ido Rasis, 55. "I am here because we need to save every tree we can."

The rangers are dispatched in teams of four to various locations in the woods, where they wait for the rockets and pounce on fires before they spread out of control. Wearing a wide-brim hat, Rasis awaits the next volley as he watches a fire rage in the distance.

Unlike buildings, bridges and other infrastructure that can quickly be rebuilt, forests take 50 to 60 years to return to what they were before fighting started, said Omri Bonneh, the director of the Jewish National Fund's northern region.

And unlike other services mobilized in this war, such as the army, police and paramedics, the rangers know their real work still lies ahead.

"Our main job will be after the war ends, to rehabilitate the entire system," said Amikam Riglin, chief of law enforcement at the Jewish National Fund.

The destruction of Mount Naftali is all the more painful since it is not a natural forest, but one meticulously planted by man. These mountains were bare when Israel was established in 1948.

Yossi Biton, 53, a Jewish National Fund representative in northern Israel, has been with the service for 20 years, following in his father's footsteps.

"My father planted this forest for 40 years, and now I have to do it all over again," he said. "An entire history has been erased in a single hour. It's like turning heaven into hell."

This is American foreign policy. This is what is being done in our name.

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