International experts on Thursday promised Lebanon immediate help in cleaning up a massive Mediterranean oil spill caused by Israeli bombing of a power plant, but said the scale of the environmental threat remained unknown.
Senior officials from the United Nations, the European Union and regional states meeting in the Greek port city of Piraeus unveiled a plan to clean up oil-clogged parts of the Lebanese coastline -- an operation slated to cost over 50 million euros (64 million dollars).
The plan, supervised by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), prescribes immediate aerial surveys by helicopter and a joint effort to clean up to 30 coastal sites in Lebanon.
UNEP and IMO officials said on Thursday that determining the oil spill's exact size and composition was a top priority in order to establish the nature of the threat, as inspection crews had no access to the affected area before Monday's ceasefire between Israeli forces and the Hezbollah militia.
"We cannot tell you with any accuracy what amount of oil remains off shore on the sea," UNEP executive director Achim Steiner told a news conference, after meeting with ministers from Lebanon, Cyprus, Syria and Turkey.
"We have been condemned to work with satellite images and ad hoc observations because access to the area has been impossible in terms of aerial surveys and... (the collection of) water samples," he said.
Steiner said it was a matter of "utter urgency" to establish the size of the oil spill and to coordinate equipment, experts and financial support from donors.
Israel was not represented at the meeting, but is in close contact with UNEP on the issue, Steiner added.
"This was not a political meeting, it concerned the countries that are, or could be affected (by the pollution)," Frederic Hebert, director of the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre for the Mediterranean, told AFP.
As the experts held their meeting in Piraeus, a few dozen volunteers in Beirut -- armed only with shovels and plastic buckets -- struggled to scrape oil-stained sand off a local beach as environmental groups began the monumental task of cleaning up tons of oil spilt along Lebanon's coast.
"We're trying to move as much sand as possible today and tomorrow so we'll know how many days it will take" to clean Ramlet el-Bayda beach, said Nina Jamal of the Lebanese environmental group Green Line.
UNEP estimates that between 10,000 and 15,000 tonnes of fuel oil leaked from an electric plant bombed by Israel last month, polluting some 150 kilometers (93 miles) of the Lebanese coast and spreading north into Syrian waters.
Lebanon has identified some 30 coastal areas affected by the spill, including the historical port of Byblos and the Palm Island nature reserve. Authorities have warned the oil could reach all the countries on the western Mediterranean.
In the absence of reliable information on the Lebanese coast pollution, the clean-up cost has been estimated at 50 million euros for 2006.
The estimate is partly based on the compensation package for the Haven incident, a crude oil spill of over 10,000 tonnes that contaminated the coasts of Liguria and Provence in Italy and France in 1991.
A dozen countries have so far promised Lebanon to donate money, equipment and research expertise, including Algeria, Cyprus, Denmark, Egypt, France, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Norway, Slovenia and Spain.
Syria, which has also seen tar balls wash onto its shores, said it will put its "capabilities at the disposal of the Lebanese government as soon as the circumstances allow."
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has also pledged support with an immediate donation of 200,000 dollars, Steiner said.
Meanwhile France on Thursday dispatched six tonnes of equipment to help break up the oil, including pumps and high-pressure cleaners, shipped from the northwest Brittany region.
Lying next to the busy shipping route of the English Channel, Brittany has seen a number of oil slicks over recent decades and has considerable resources for coping with them.
Source:The Tocqueville Connection