UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 18 (UPI) -- In the days and weeks after the July 13 bombing of a Lebanese power station, 19 miles south of Beirut, and the subsequent release of 15,000 tons of fuel oil into the Mediterranean Sea, environmental and human rights watchdogs had little choice but to sit back and wait.
The U.N. Environmental Program and others rang alarm bells, joining a broader U.N. call for an immediate cessation of hostilities, but said no assessment, much less a clean-up, would be possible as long as the coastline remained a war zone.
Another, more complex dynamic was also at work.
How does one decry an oil spill, or, more crudely, how does one justify worrying about pollution's toll on green sea turtles, an endangered species indigenous to the Mediterranean, when a war is going on? By the time the extent of the spill was understood -- UNEP's first news release on the spill was dated July 27 -- 800,000 Lebanese had been displaced from their homes, Israelis in cities like Haifa were being pounded by Hezbollah rockets and the death toll on both sides of the conflict was hovering close to 400.
Since the U.N. Security Council-brokered cessation of hostilities, including a call for the gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops, went into effect Monday, an on-the-ground assessment will soon be possible.
On Thursday, U.N. agencies meeting in Athens with affected countries and the International Maritime Organization, agreed to a plan of action to contain the spill and to begin cleaning up the oil slick, which has already spread 93 miles up the Lebanese coastline and at least six miles north into Syrian waters. The process is expected to cost at least $64 million and will initially involve 300 people tackling 30 locations simultaneously.
But the first step will be to dispatch helicopters to conduct aerial surveys to determine the extent of the pollution and that cannot happen until Israel has lifted its ban on foreign aircraft.
"Firstly, our thoughts are with the people on all sides of this conflict who have suffered over the past few weeks. It is an absolute priority that every effort is made to bring the humanitarian assistance so urgently needed," UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said in Athens.
"However, it is also a sad fact that the environment -- so vividly underlined by the oil slick and the blackened, damaged coastline -- is also a victim with all the repercussions for livelihoods, human health, economic development, ecosystems, fisheries, tourism and rare and endangered wildlife," he said.
UNEP estimates close to 20 percent of the oil has evaporated and the bulk of remaining oil had washed up on the Lebanese coastline.
Still, in the absence of any formal assessment, UNEP cannot yet confirm the type of oil involved.
A spokeswoman for the Athens-based Mediterranean Action Plan, an arm of UNEP, Luisa Colasimone, told United Press International the agency is still awaiting reports from two U.N. experts dispatched to Syria to assess the damage.
Lebanon's minister for the environment, Yacoub Riad Sarraf, meanwhile has said it could take up to 10 years for Lebanon to recover from the spill.
"If you compare this to any spill in history, intervention can help within the first 48 to 72 hours of the spill. We are already 20 days too late," he told BBC News. "The damage has been done."
In a letter to UNEP-MAP, Sarraf asked for international assistance, and said both the sandy and rocky beaches as well as many tourists resorts and hotels in Lebanon had been badly polluted.
UNEP has stepped back from an earlier statement that the spill could rival the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989. Still, local environmentalists are calling the spill the worst environmental disaster in Lebanon's history, and the most serious threat yet faced in the Mediterranean.
Oil had already settled on the sea floor, which could affect the Mediterranean's tuna population, and oil that has gathered on the beach could impede the movement of newborn green turtles, an endangered species, as they attempt to enter the sea.
Dr. Richard Thomas, communications manager for Birdlife International, told UPI there is a good chance migratory birds will pass through the area during their autumn migration by the millions are expected to largely be spared.
Unless they feed in the shallow reaches of the slick, many birds are likely to fly overhead, avoiding it altogether.
The broader ecological toll of the spill, including its effect on humans, is more difficult to predict.
Marine experts from Inforac, an Italian environmental organization affiliated with UNEP, say the spill could lead to a rise in cancer among people living in and around Beirut. The agency's spokeswoman Simonetta Lombardo said the spill of fuel oil was a "high-risk toxic cocktail made up of substances which cause cancer and damage to the endocrine system."
Lombardo also said the spill has had a very visible effect: dead fish are washing up on Lebanon's shores in large numbers, foreshadowing the heavy toll the spill is likely to have on Lebanese fishermen.
But Melanie Duchin, a climate and energy expert for Greenpeace based in Alaska, says oil spill cleanups are always something of a misnomer, since oil spills have a permanent effect on the ecosystems where they occur.
"Even under the best circumstances -- when the weather is right, when there is a crew and supplies ready on the shore, when there isn't a war going on -- only 15 percent comes out of the marine environment," Duchin told UPI.