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Lebanon's month-old oil slick sinks down to blanket Mediterranean marine life (watch the scuba diver's video and see the images of destructi

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Lebanon's month-old oil slick sinks down to blanket Mediterranean marine life (watch the scuba diver's video and see the images of destructi
Lebanon's month-old oil slick sinks down to blanket Mediterranean marine life

Lauren Frayer
Canadian Press
August 23, 2006

BEIRUT - Videotape released Tuesday showed dead fish bobbing along the Mediterranean seabed off the Lebanese coast, as a sunken oil slick slid ominously toward a lone red sea urchin, rooted in the sand, its tentacles waving in the current.

A scuba diver's video made public by Greenpeace graphically detailed some of the environmental destruction a month after an oil spill unleashed by Israeli bombardment began sinking - blanketing marine life with a tar-like sludge in what experts from the United Nations and elsewhere have called Lebanon's worst-ever environmental disaster.

The UN has said the spill could take as long as a year to clean up and cost $70 million Cdn.

"You have the bottom of the sea filled with fuel - between the rocks and little valleys. It's just dotted and covered with black tar," said Mohammed El Sarji, head of the Lebanese Union of professional Divers, who recorded the footage, which showed oil spread 10 centimetres thick over a 100-metre wide area of the sea bed near Beirut.

Some 110,000 barrels of oil poured into the Mediterranean starting early on July 14, when Israeli warplanes hit a coastal power plant at Jiyeh, 20 kilometres south of Beirut. More missiles hit a day later. Six fuel tanks ruptured in all, sparking explosions that knocked out a dike meant to prevent spills at the plant, which sits about 50 metres from the shore.

At first, the oil slathered 140 kilometres of Lebanon's coastline - reaching into Syria - and blocked sunlight from penetrating the water's surface, killing small plants on which many fish feed. Now with it sinking, the oil threatened plants and fish that live deeper - on the sea floor.

"Some of it became denser than sea water and sank to the bottom. It's like a big thick blanket that smothers living organisms," said Rick Steiner, a professor at the University of Alaska and oil spill expert who worked on the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

"That was three times larger than this, but it was crude oil, and this is fuel oil that was going to run generators (at the power plant). This stuff is heavier and thicker - and much harder to work with. It gets stuck to rocks and it's difficult to wash off," he said. "But the good thing about it being so thick is that we might be able to get it off the sea bed with rakes or shovels."

UN officials on Tuesday expressed worry at the slow pace of the cleanup, hampered by Israeli bombardment and blockades for a month while oil continued to seep out into the Mediterranean.

"There have been hostilities in the area, and the environmental side of Lebanon's problems unfortunately couldn't be addressed until now," said Nick Nuttall, spokesman for the UN Environment Program.

On Monday, Israel granted the UN permission to fly over Lebanon's coast to do an aerial survey of the spill, and flights were expected to begin within days, Nuttall said.

Finland on Tuesday said it would send nearly $890,000 Cdn to help with the operation and urged other EU countries to join in. Cleaning equipment has already arrived from Norway, and more was on the way from France, Nuttall said.

Removing the thick sludge from the sea floor would require remote-controlled underwater vehicles, or dredging devices towed behind a floating vessel motoring up and down the coast, said Steiner, who was contracted by the Lebanese government to help.

With an Israeli naval blockade still in place, that large of an operation on Lebanon's coast - with divers and boats to move against the spill - would only be possible with Israeli permission.

The UN overflights would gauge the amount of oil still floating on top of the water, and estimate damage to Lebanon's shoreline. But Steiner said the amount of oil that had submerged was still unknown and most dangerous.

"If we don't get this stuff out of the water, a month or six months from now, it will probably pop back to the surface . . . We could see huge tar balls washing up on shores of Mediterranean for years to come," he said.

The spill appeared to be staying along the Lebanese and Syrian coasts. Mediterranean currents had pushed the oil northward toward Syria, forcing beaches closed there, Steiner said. To the south, Israel's environment ministry said Tuesday, no traces had been spotted on Israeli shores. North of Syria, Turkish authorities also said the slick had not reached their shores.

A scuba diver's video made public by Greenpeace graphically detailes some of the environmental destruction a month after the deliberate targeting of civil installations:

Watch the video at the link below. Also, see the images of the destruction.

[link to www.freespeechwar.com]