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Swiss face time battle over Lebanon oil spill

Beirut's beaches have been covered with oil from the spill

(Keystone)

The Swiss development agency is racing against time in its efforts to clear up the devastating oil spill along the Lebanese coast before the winter storms set in.

It has been concentrating on the Palm Islands, an important nature reserve, and part of the coast near the southern city of Tripoli.

The oil comes from the Jiyyeh power station, hit during a bombing raid in the conflict between Islamic Hezbollah militants and Israel in July.

Between 10,000 and 30,000 tons of fuel oil is estimated to have flowed into the Mediterranean Sea, contaminating 140 kilometres of Lebanese coast.

Local environmental groups have called it an environmental disaster and the United Nations has expressed its "grave concern".

Almost all the oil is being blown northwards by the wind "up to the Syrian border," said Frederick Steinemann, humanitarian aid coordinator in Beirut for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

"Coastal beaches are polluted up towards Tripoli," he told swissinfo.

The winter storms are expected to churn up the seas, leading to more oil being driven nearer the mainland. Work therefore has to be quick, says the SDC.

Government crisis

The Lebanese government, currently going through a crisis following a series of ministerial resignations, has however, acted quickly, said Steinemann.

Parts of the coast have been handed over to different countries to clean. Switzerland has received the 15 km stretch before Syria, from Enfe to Tripoli.

"In this area is the nature reserve in the very polluted Palm Islands," added the coordinator.

In some cases manual work is needed to keep the oil at bay. In others, high-pressure water is used.

"On the island nature reserve the oil has to practically be siphoned off by hand," said the SDC coordinator. Twenty local fishermen who lost their living as a result of the spill are carrying out this work.

They are paid $20 (SFr25) a day to fill containers with residue which is then brought back to the mainland.

The mainland coastal areas are also heavily polluted - oil has even seeped into the sand.

Oily sand

"One could quite simply bulldoze the sand away but where do you put the oily sand?" Steinemann asked.

A specialist firm has therefore been contracted to pump hot water into the sand so that the oil floats to the top and back into the sea, where it can be pumped away.

The SDC's work is costing around SFr400,000, which is being financed with extra funds from the Swiss government.

Steinemann added that the problem was getting rid of the oil residue. "The Swiss cement firm Holcim could burn oil residues in an ecologically sound way in its cement furnaces," he said.

Negotiations are currently taking place on the issue.

The Lebanese government has praised Swiss efforts in the clean up. "Swiss help is essential because it is very quick and very professional," said the Lebanese environment minister, Jakub Sarraf, on a visit to the Palm Islands.

Swiss Ambassador François Barras has already declared that long-term ecological development work in Lebanon is one of the country's top priorities.

swissinfo

In brief

Switzerland has so far given SFr14.4 million in aid to Lebanon to help the victims of the conflict.

The central part of its aid programme is aimed at getting people back into their villages and includes opening schools, clearing mines and offering medical assistance.

Switzerland has donated around SFr400,000 to help clear up the oil spill.

Switzerland is also financing an assessment of the situation being carried out by the UN, the results of which will help decide further action.

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Key facts

Between 10,000 and 30,000 tons of oil flooded into the sea after Israeli jets attacked storage tanks at the Jiyyeh power plant south of the capital, Beirut, on July 13 and 15.
Part of the oil was burned.
So far 6,000 litres of oil and 20 tons of polluted rubbish have been collected, say experts.
But they warn urgent action is needed before winter storms spread the oil spill further.

end of infobox


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