A New York City-Sized Oil Spill Is Contaminating the Mediterranean Sea

A New York City-Sized Oil Spill Is Contaminating the Mediterranean Sea
On 24 and 25 August 2021, the Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellites have imaged an oil spill on the coast of Syria. It has since spread to the west. (Image: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-1)

A Syrian power plant began leaking oil last week, and now the spill is heading for Cyprus. The effects on marine ecosystems and communities could be devastating as it spreads across the Mediterranean.

Syrian officials said the spill started on August 23 when a leak sprung in a tank filled with 15,000 tons of fuel at the Baniyas power station, according to the Syrian state news agency SANA.

Satellite imagery analysis by Orbital EOS found that the spill covers 800 square kilometres, an area the size of New York City. That’s much larger than originally thought — in satellite imagery last week, the spill appeared to measure just 26 square kilometres.

Satellite imagery analysis by Orbital EOS of the oil spill in Syria. (Image: Orbital EOS/World Wildlife Federation, Other) Satellite imagery analysis by Orbital EOS of the oil spill in Syria. (Image: Orbital EOS/World Wildlife Federation, Other)

Officials from Cyprus expected the slick to reach their nation’s shores on Wednesday, but thanks to a shift in winds, it narrowly missed the island. Officials from Cyprus and Turkey as well as Israel are continuing to monitor their shores for signs of contamination.

The slick also appears to have partially dissipated on Wednesday, according to the Guardian. Yet as it did, it left clots of oil stuck to the seafloor. Crews are cleaning them up, but it could still be disastrous for the rich ecosystems of the Mediterranean Sea. The marine region is home to approximately 17,000 different species of wildlife, representing up to 18% of all marine species in the world.

“WWF is deeply concerned about the oil leakage that occurred in Syria about a week ago,” the Mediterranean Marine Initiative at the World Wildlife Federation said in a statement. “This preventable incident will have immediate and long-term effects on coastal ecosystems and vulnerable communities in the area.”

Residents along the Mediterranean fear the consequences of the oil spill on local economies. It could take a serious toll on fisheries and tourism.

“People did not need this, it is already hard to make a living here and this certainly affected the lives of many families and made them lose their income,” an anonymous resident of Baniyas told CNN.

They also said that the Syrian government isn’t properly addressing the severity of the crisis. The country is in the throes of economic crisis due to war, the fast depreciation of its currency, and the fallout of covid-19 shutdowns.

“The government only sent teams with sponges and water hoses; they do not have the capacity to deal with this. … You cannot clean the sea with sponges,” the resident said.

Turkish environmental officials are mobilising resources to help contain the spill, as are those of Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus.

“This problem is not just a problem that concerns Northern Cyprus,” Cemaliye Özverel Ekinci, who heads northern Cyprus’ chamber of environmental engineers, told the Guardian. “We should act together with the south.”

This is the second time a major oil spill has struck the eastern Mediterranean Sea this year. In February, an oil tanker leak off the coast of Israel left tar and other toxic substances along the Israeli and Lebanese coasts. Scientists have also sounded the alarm about a tanker sitting off the coast of Yemen that’s perilously close to spilling its oily contents. The spills illustrate how the dangers of using fossil fuels aren’t just climate-related; oil, gas, and coal can also wreak environmental havoc.

“Mediterranean countries must take strong measures aimed at refitting and securing obsolete oil and gas infrastructures so that further incidents of this kind impacting vital ecosystems and vulnerable communities can be prevented,” Mauro Randone, a coordinator at WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative, said.