AN oil slick affecting more than 80km of the Lebanese coastline has reached Syria and could threaten Cyprus, Turkey and Greece if left unchecked.
The spill was caused by the bombing of the Jiyyeh power station, located about 30km south of Beirut, on July 13 and 15. The oil has been spreading widely because it has so far been impossible to begin cleaning it up, while the Israeli attack on the country continues.
Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said: "It is nearly three weeks since the bombing of the power plant and the initial satellite imagery unfortunately confirms that the oil spill is of a significant magnitude and spreading. A co-ordinated response must urgently be allowed to proceed, so that we can limit the immediate environmental damage as well as the longer-term implications for the economy and the Lebanese people."
At least 15,000 tonnes of oil are believed to have been spilled, though experts have been unable to make thorough assessments locally because of the shelling and the true figure may be much higher. About 37,000 tonnes were spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster, by way of comparison. Marine and bird life in the area has been badly affected, and many beaches ruined.
Wael Hmaidan, co-ordinator of the oil spill working group in Lebanon, said: "This is a huge catastrophe, among other catastrophes. If this was happening by itself, it would be the biggest event of the year in the Mediterranean."
Mr Hmaidan estimated that the spill had caused at least $200m (€157m, £106m) in damage so far, and was spreading unhindered. He feared the spill could reach as far as Greece and Cyprus if action was not taken soon.
He said an attempt to assess the damage from land had to be abandoned because the roads in the area were coming under Israeli attack.
Fishermen in the region have reported the death of thousands of fish and seabirds from the slick, which has coated the coast in heavy fuel oil, and they have been unable to fish. There are important nurseries for fish in the area, which have been destroyed, and the slick threatens local populations of the rare green turtle, whose eggs hatch at this time of year. Bluefin tuna, an important commercial species, are also present in the area.
International agencies, including the United Nations, are monitoring the situation. A clean-up operation could be launched within a few days if hostilities ceased, and the initial clean-up would take at least a week, although to clean the slick fully will take about six months, and the effects will continue to be felt for several years.
The Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre for the Mediterranean Sea (Rem-pec), based in Malta, is giving daily advice to the Lebanese Ministry of the Environment on how to tackle the fuel oil slick.
Experts fear that the continuing bombing may result in further pollution incidents, such as the leak of toxic chemicals from industrial facilities hit by bombs.
FT Syndication Service