Environment: Collateral damage

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Environment: Collateral damage
Environment: Collateral damage

Collateral Damage

Compared to the plight of the civilian population, the environmental destruction caused by the recent Middle East conflict has almost disappeared. But the Mediterranean will have to suffer from the oil spill caused by the war for a long time to come. And this is not an isolated case.


On July 13 and 15, 2006, the Israeli Air Force bombed a Lebanese power plant in Jiye, south of Beirut. Between 10,000 and 35,000 tons of heavy fuel oil spilled into the eastern Mediterranean. At times, the oil slick was 150 kilometers long and up to 40 kilometers wide. The Lebanese government estimates the cost of the oil cleanup to be between US$50 million and US$100 million.

On August 12, 2006, an oil tanker with two million liters of fuel on board sank off the central Philippines. 300 kilometers of coastline are already polluted; the oil slick reached a length of up to 36 kilometers.


Be it the "oil spill" a fatal side effect of the recent war in the Middle East or a recurring industrial accident - the result for the marine fauna and flora is always the same: several seabirds die three times over from freezing, starvation or poisoning. The oil sticks the feathers together and destroys the structure that keeps the water out. The animals try to groom themselves until the plumage is clean again. They end up swallowing oil.

Entergized soil organisms such as mussels and snails as well as larvae and eggs of numerous fish species are destroyed. This mass extinction drastically reduces the supply in the food chain for other organisms. In the Mediterranean, the already overfished stocks of bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) are even more under pressure from the oil. Breeding grounds of the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) and the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) are acutely threatened by the oil slick.

Off the Philippines, the pollution of the coastal mangrove population is particularly striking: this "nursery" for numerous marine and brackish water dwellers is also the food base for a whole chain of organisms. The fighting in Lebanon has already delayed the response to the oil spill. It remains a minor matter - a lot is already known from the past about the danger of the coveted raw material.

Black Gold - Black Venom

The frequently transported heavy oil in particular has a lot to offer: In addition to carbon, it contains a high proportion of the group of polycyclic aromatics (PAH), which consists of several hundred compounds. These are notorious for their toxicity, environmental persistence and widespread distribution. A well-known representative of the group is naphthalene. Some toxic sulfur compounds and heavy metals increase the environmental hazard. If these substances get into the coastal sediment, they are only broken down very slowly under anaerobic conditions and are constantly released again and again. Organisms poison themselves slowly without dying immediately.


Tanker accidents are responsible for the entry of around 100,000 tons of oil every year. A remarkable number - and yet it is only eight percent of the total of 1.3 million tons that the marine ecosystem actually has to deal with. The inconspicuous main culprits remain chronic pollution caused by inputs from rivers or regular ship operations. This also includes illegal dumping, the disposal of oil residues on the high seas. However, because of its devastating consequences, the oil spill is considered one of the worst accidents to be expected for the environment.

The "Exxon Valdez" - human error

Cold water is particularly hard hit. The volatile components of the oil evaporate more slowly in cool temperatures, and the oil also degrades more slowly compared to warmer environments. Arctic ecosystems have fewer species with shorter food chains and are therefore particularly sensitive. On March 24, 1989, the fully loaded tanker "Exxon Valdez" sank in Prince William Sound in Alaska. According to conservative estimates, around 40,000 tons of oil spilled; 2000 kilometers of coastline were affected by the oil spill.

Days after the accident, the conditions seemed ideal for a sea rescue: calm weather, hardly any wind. But the measures got off to a slow start, and the necessary expensive decision to pump empty and tow the tanker was not made. When the weather turned stormy, the control measures finally initiated could no longer keep the oil off shore: 250,000 seabirds and 3,500 sea otters died along with countless other sea creatures - due to inaction after the accident and a drunken captain who was at the helm left to an inadequately trained officer.

Damage Control Attempt

The "Exxon Valdez" case became a media event not least because of this multiple human error. The images of the bonded sea otters dying miserably and the scale of the disaster shook the public in a lasting way.


But the errors continued anyway. The oil should disappear visually as soon as possible. Hot water from high-pressure cleaners promised a quick fix for the smudged rocks - but the oil came back with the next high tide. The high pressure of the cleaners pressed it deep into the sediment. There, in the absence of light and air, it can only be broken down very slowly by bacteria. The hot water also washed out nutrients from the sediment, slowing down the recolonization of "cleaned" areas. After the experiences in Alaska, "heavy equipment" is now used much more cautiously in oil scavenging.


High-pressure cleaning with hot water has largely destroyed the growth (below).

The only guarantee for permanent self-cleaning of coasts are oil-degrading bacteria. Although part of the natural bacterial flora, their density varies considerably with the food supply. As a result, they were scarce in Prince William Sound before the tragedy, and fertilizer was spread for them - actually a very sensible measure. However, the composition and thus the food requirements of the microorganisms change in the course of degradation - and the "feed" did not adapt to this change. Just like additional ventilation of the floor, which the oxygen-consuming helpers would have needed for their work. Unfortunately, there was no success.

In stations that were set up quickly, environmentalists tried to clean up and nurse the polluted otters and seabirds in the sound. There are also such rescue facilities on the local North Sea and B altic Sea coasts, but the average survival time of cleaned birds is only seven days, despite all efforts. The fine feather structure is finally destroyed during washing and is only completely present again after the next moult. The stress of the whole procedure also causes many to die. Saving individuals is therefore only considered ecologically sensible if they subsequently contribute to the reproductive success of the population.

Balance sheet after 17 years

In Alaska, nature and its inhabitants have come back – no question about it. "But you can still find oil in the ground in many places," reports Jörg Fedderen from the environmental association Greenpeace. "It's amazing how long it takes for the oil to disappear from the ecosystem with the help of humans or through natural degradation processes."

It's amazing how long it takes for oil to disappear from the ecosystem

(Jörg Fedderen) Studies now indicate damage to the genetic material of salmon and herring by the oil: malformations in eggs and larvae are the result. Due to the accumulation of toxic oil residues in the food chain, the populations of otters and seabirds in particular are still being impaired in their recovery. Charles Peterson of the University of North Carolina and his colleagues point out the unexpected impact of non-lethal doses of toxic substances on an ecosystem. Animal populations recover more slowly than expected in the continuous presence of such substances, the researchers noted. So far, only acute events have been discussed as having an impact on population developments.

What is being done

After the "Exxon Valdez" disaster, only tankers with double hulls are allowed to call at US ports, and the European Union was also able to bring about this measure for European ports. But when a ship that is unable to maneuver is driven against the coast, even the best double hull is useless. And the old single tankers are still allowed to pass through European waters. In November 2002, for example, the ramshackle "Prestige" ship wrecked off Galicia and by the beginning of 2003 had polluted around 2,000 kilometers of the Spanish, Portuguese and French coast. Serious mistakes made by the Spanish government also delayed the necessary immediate measures. The tanker eventually broke up in the open sea.

Outdated single-hull tankers still sail the seas like floating time bombs. The "Prestige" could also have crashed on the German front door. On her last voyage from Estonia she sailed through the low-exchange B altic Sea and then through the busy Kadet Channel between Germany and Denmark, which was only about 1.7 kilometers wide, towards Gibr altar.

The consequences for the B altic Sea would have been comparable to the current situation in the Mediterranean. The oil cannot be diluted by wind and waves like in open seas. Heavily folded coastal sections with offshore islands become a collection point for oil components. Here and there, not only flora and fauna, but also tourism and thus an entire branch of the economy are at risk. The governments of Syria and Cyprus, but also Turkey, already see their economic power in the coastal regions under serious threat in the coming years.

Deeper Causes

Obsolete tankers with insufficiently trained crews continue to be used by their operators and shipping companies for profit reasons, with great risk to people and the environment. But it is not enough to simply blame them and inadequate controls and regulations for the accidents that occur again and again. Consumer demand for products that are as cheap as possible creates immense price pressure along the production and transport chain. That is why ailing tankers like the "Prestige" transport highly toxic heavy fuel oil over long distances instead of using it in modern refineries at the point of origin and rendering it more or less harmless.

The simple reduction in oil transport will also make tanker accidents less likely. For this purpose, alternatives to the fossil raw material oil must be considered. Renewable energies and a more sustainable way of life in industrialized countries are the key to success here.

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