BEIRUT -- Israel's bombing of a power plant on Beirut's southern outskirts has spawned an environmental disaster, sending thousands of tons of heavy fuel oil into the Mediterranean and spreading dangerous fumes into the air, government officials say.
Israeli forces hit the Jiyye power plant two weeks ago, setting its storage fuel tanks ablaze and cutting electricity to many areas in the capital and south Lebanon. One of the tanks exploded and fell into the Mediterranean a week ago, and another one was still burning yesterday.
The officials say Lebanon does not have enough of the foam that is used to extinguish oil fires, as most of it has been used to put out the blaze at the Beirut airport and oil stations, which also have been hit in Israeli strikes.
Fears were rising about health problems from the spill and from air pollution.
``The dark cloud that you see over Beirut and the sea carries particulate matters that enter the respiratory system and cause different types of respiratory problems," Berge Hadjian, director general of the Environment Ministry, said in an interview. ``The most vulnerable are children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those who have respiratory diseases like asthma."
The environmental damage elsewhere in the region was unclear. Hadjian said that depending on the winds, air pollution could reach Syria, Turkey, and Israel.
Samih Wehbe, an oil expert in the Environment Ministry, voiced more alarming worries. ``It is a catastrophe; it is something unbelievable," he said. ``The pollution of the air could reach Europe."
The tank spilled at least 10,000 tons of fuel oil into the sea. Hadjian said it was possible that winds could also carry the oil to Turkey and Syria.
In Lebanon, the spill has fouled public and private beaches from Jiyye in the south to Chekka in the north. According to the Ministry of Environment, 80 percent of the coast north of Jiyye has been contaminated. Along that coast, waves carry a black, thick layer of oil that sticks to rocks and sand.
While the beaches remain open, the government has warned people to stay away.
Gaby Khalaf, director of the National Center for Marine Sciences, said the sea needs one or two years to be ``totally cleaned."
``Today, I saw that certain species like the mollusk and the crustacean have perished," Khalaf said. ``They can't breathe or eat anymore."
Fisherman Issam Iskandarani, 60, said he noticed the black layer of oil two days ago in the Mediterranean. ``I was surprised when I saw the dead fish floating on the surface," he said. Since then, he has been moving from one place to another hoping to find a clean spot along the coast.
``Look at the fish. They are moving in a way that tells they are dying," he said, pointing his finger at the sea. ``I've been fishing for 25 years, and I know from experience that they are dying."
Environmental experts fear that if the burning tank falls into the sea, the amount of fuel spilled into the Mediterranean could reach 20,000 tons.
Private companies and the Kuwaiti government are assisting in the initial cleanup, local media have reported. But officials say that a widespread effort remains too dangerous because of the continuing threat from Israeli forces.
Hadjian estimated it would cost $150 million and take six months to a year to clean up the oil spill alone.