Photos: Samer El Khoury
Photos: Samer El Khoury

Volunteers lead Lebanon’s beach clean-up after devastating oil spill

Volunteers launched clean-up efforts across Lebanese beaches after an oil tanker spill off the Israeli coast deposited large amounts of tar over stretches of the Mediterranean coast.

The source of the spill has not yet been found, but an estimated 1,000 tonnes of bunker fuel is believed to have leaked from a ship into the sea following a storm two weeks ago. The spill caused large-scale damage and black tar reached the Southern coast of Lebanon, including two marine protection sites.

Volunteers take the lead

Volunteers and other organizations have taken charge of clean-up efforts.

“I’ve been working on the oil spill since Monday, so we could take permission and inquire whether the substance was toxic and such,” said Samer El Khoury, president of the environmental committee in Minteshreen, a local youth organization born after the October 17 revolution.

“The clean-up was on Sunday, and it was meant to resume on Monday but we paused the efforts due to the storm.”

El Khoury was on the ground over the weekend alongside a team of 60 volunteers who stepped in at the last minute to help out.

“It was actually quite sad, because the damage spread from Naqoura to Sour. [On Monday], it got to Ramlet el Bayda in Beirut. The rocks on the beach had drunk up some of the oil, and we tried to remove as much as we could.”

Should the ship turn out to be Israeli, it would not be the first time Lebanon’s ecosystem is threatened by the occupying force, according to El Khoury.

The activist recalls finding medical waste with Hebrew writing on it in Sour last year, as well as another oil spill that dates back two or three years.

In 2006, the Israeli air force bombed storage tanks at the thermal power station in Jiyeh and caused a spill that affected one-third of Lebanon’s coastline.

“No one ever does anything about this, especially in this case, when an enemy country did this,” says El Khoury.

On Wednesday, Israel accused Iran of “environmental terrorism.”

The Israeli environment protection minister tweeted that a “Libyan-flagged pirate ship that departed from Iran was responsible.”

Part of Minteshreen’s clean-up effort involved the Mansouri beach, home to Lebanon’s sea turtle population. According to El Khoury, the turtles normally come to the beach in March to lay their eggs. 

As a result of the oil spill, their home is now endangered and their future at stake. 

The Tyre Coast Nature Reserve told Al Jazeera that “the spill could endanger marine life and biodiversity in the area.”

The damaged beach is home to the endangered loggerhead and green sea turtles, as well as the Arabian spiny mouse.

The director of the reserve also stated that the reserve is suffering from approximately 2 tonnes of tar, “90 percent of which is hidden under the sand.”

Clean-up efforts will resume over the course of the week, across all coastal areas as the oil spill leaks further north.

What the government did(n’t do)

Upon discovery of the tar, President Michel Aoun asked authorities to assess the extent of the damage and proceed to limit its effects.

Minteshreen called out local authorities on their failure to act and organize a clean-up initiative.

“In light of the failure of the Lebanese authorities to carry out their duties, we call on them now to do their legal duty and prosecute the parties responsible for this leak, holding them accountable for the serious environmental damage inflicted on our southern coast.”

The Foreign Ministry recently filed a complaint to the UN and asked them for both an investigation and technical support since “Lebanon does not have the capacity to address the environmental disaster and limit its incessant repercussions.”

The complaint noted that the damage may take years to be undone.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was also previously contacted on behalf of local authorities requesting help. They are currently studying ways in which they can offer equipment or aid to remove the clumpy and sticky substance, according to spokesperson Andrea Tenenti.