Triple spills rival Exxon Valdez disaster

An oil spill caused by the Israeli bombing of a Lebanese power station during fighting has become just one of three major spills threatening the world's seas this week.

The Lebanese spill (see related story) has been described by UNEP as rivalling the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster in terms of scale and potential environmental damage.

But now two other large spills, one in the Indian Ocean and a second off the coast of the Philippines, present a new threat to marine life.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), told journalists this week that assessment and clean up of the spill in Lebanon had been hindered by the hostilities between Isreal and Hezbollah but in the worst case scenario, if all the oil stored at the bombed Jiyyeh power plant leaked into the sea, the situation could be on a par with the Exxon Valdez spill – among the worst the world has ever known.

Over 140km of coastline had already been polluted by the mammoth spill by the beginning of the week, but the UN-brokered ceasefire and offers of help from the international community offered some hope that a clean up could soon begin.

A high-level meeting held in Greece on Thursday heard how the EU and the UN would offer resources and expertise to help tackle the slick while OPEC and the International Maritime Organisation were prepared to help bankroll the operation.

Meanwhile, the Phillipino authorities were left dealing with their own spill after a tanker carrying 2 million litres of bunker oil sunk in heavy seas off the island of Guimaras, known for its idyllic sandy beaches, threatening a major environmental disaster – as well as the valuable tourism trade.

The ship ran into problems on last Friday night when it was swamped by huge waves and began taking on water, sinking in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Attempts by divers to plug the leaks on Sunday failed and the Government drafted in specially equipped vessels to spray dispersants on the affected area.

While progress is being made the authorities predict the spill will have a major impact on the rich variety of marine life in the area and fishing villages on the island have already been affected by the slick, with fears it could reach the pristine tourist beaches further up the coast.

A spokesman for the coastguard gave the gloomy prediction that the clean up operation could take the best part of a year to complete.

The third major spill took place on Tuesday when a Japanese tanker collided with a cargo ship in the eastern Indian Ocean, about 200 miles west of the Nicobar Islands.

The accident occurred when the tanker went to aid the smaller vessel which had indicated it was in distress.

The tanker, which was returning to Japan from Oman, was carrying more than twice the amount of oil than that which was spilt in the Philippino disaster.

Both spills are dwarfed by the colossal Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, which was around eight times the scale of the Japanese accident.

Industry plans to phase out single hulled oil tankers and replace them with safer double hulled vessels are expected to reduce the risks of spills in open seas in coming years.

Sam Bond

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