BEIRUT (AFP) – Two years after the worst oil spill in the east Mediterranean left thousands of tonnes of crude over three-quarters of Lebanon’s coast, the beaches are almost all clean but the troubles continue.  In July 2006, in the midst of the month-long war between Israel and Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah fighters, Israeli aircraft bombed a coastal power plant at Jiyeh, 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Beirut.Around 15,000 tonnes of oil flooded into the sea and was carried by the current, leaving 150 kilometres (95 miles) of coastline covered with thick black residue.

The once glitzy tourist beaches were covered with a film of filthy discharge and the breathtaking azure sea left blackened with oily deposits. Now after two years’ work dedicated to it, the Mediterranean has recovered its blue and the white sandy beaches are back to their sparkling former glory. Only the Jozor al-Nakhel, or Palm Tree Island, nature reserve, west of the northern town of Tripoli is still being cleaned. But the impact of the spill remains a headache for Lebanon. At Jiyeh beach, more than 800 tonnes of oil-covered rocks and sand sit it huge heavy-duty plastic bags, only metres (yards) from the water’s edge waiting for someone to work out how to get rid of them.

The lines of bags stretch along the beach, with some having spilled open, oozing sticky black trails down into the soft sand.

"Each one of these bags holds two tonnes," said Mohammed Sarji, whose Bahr Lubnan (Sea of Lebanon) association has been working to clean the south coast beaches. "They are extremely durable but they are not designed to sit here in the sun, wind and rain for two years."

He added that the fuel ends up being absorbed by the soil and then filters into the ground water.

"It is a crime," Sarji said. "The sea is clean but another aspect of the environment is being destroyed by neglecting this waste," he said. "The locals have threatened to move the waste to another site where it would damage other soil, or to burn it, which would cause a different ecological disaster due to the toxic fumes that would be released."

Private beach owner Jean Nakhle, who lives with his wife and son only metres from some sacks, said he is tired of the debate on how to dispose of the waste.

"We want them (the bags) to be cleared up," he said. "The smell is unpleasant because of the sun and also there is a risk of them catching fire."

Lebanese environment ministry officials say they are examining all means of disposing of the waste.

"The cost of clearing up the waste and (to repair the) environmental damage was set at 203 million dollars (130 million euros), but Lebanon has only been able to raise eight percent, so due to the shortage of funds, the NGOs have not been able to remove the waste," environment ministry official Ghada Mitri said.

Rima Tarabay, vice president of Bahr Lubnan, said her association had proposed giving the waste to the Lebanese branch of the Holcim cement works which had the ability to burn it, and which would not cost the state anything.

"The ministry agreed, before going back on its decision," she said.

The ministry, which has only around 50 staff and a tiny budget, had to manage the problem because the bureau that handles natural disasters was still tackling the devastation left by the war.

"The waste cannot be buried or burnt because Lebanon does not have landfill or furnace facilities which can handle toxic waste," Mitri said.

"We have ruled out transferring the waste to an industrialised country with the expertise and equipment necessary to recycle it because the countries contacted have either refused or not replied," she said.

"A feasibility study found we could not even use it as a base level for road building, because the waste was not of the standard required," she added.

"We are now investigating the possibility of burying it in airtight containers after it has been treated."