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Volunteers In Lebanon Try To Save A Beach And Its Endangered Turtles After Oil Spill

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's turn now to Lebanon, where volunteers are trying to save one of the country's last unspoiled beaches. An oil spill, apparently from a ship in the Mediterranean Sea, polluted the coast last month. At stake are the beaches' nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hassan Kalash looks out over the beach where he spent so much of his childhood.

HASSAN KALASH: It's like a disaster.

SHERLOCK: Yeah.

KALASH: It's actually a disaster.

SHERLOCK: He says he's heartbroken by what the pollution means both for this coastline and for his community here.

KALASH: It's part of our home. Like, this will be affecting everything - not only the sea, the air, the whole ecosystem.

SHERLOCK: Kalash picks up a lump of something.

Oh, this is tar.

KALASH: Yes.

SHERLOCK: Oh, horrible. It's kind of...

KALASH: Squishy.

SHERLOCK: ...Squishy and gloopy to touch.

KALASH: It sticks to the sand.

SHERLOCK: Because the tar is coated in sand, it can be tricky to see it at first. But once you know what you're looking for, you realize the scale of the damage.

It's like the entire beach is just covered in these lumps of soft, oily mush.

KALASH: You can put that in here.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

KALASH: If you're not wearing gloves, it can be hard.

SHERLOCK: Scientists say the spill has polluted beaches from the southernmost tip of Lebanon, which borders Israel, way up the coastline to the capital, Beirut, and further north. What's important about these beaches in south Lebanon is that they're not overbuilt with tourist developments or factories, so they're the main nesting grounds left in the country for endangered sea turtles.

RANIM TAHHAN: Hello. (Unintelligible). Hi.

SHERLOCK: Ranim Tahhan is a marine biology student helping to clean the beach.

TAHHAN: The amount of oil that's going to be left on the beach is not just in the water. It's going to affect the organisms that live here, like the turtles that are dying.

SHERLOCK: Already, the oil spill has claimed victims. Inside the offices for the Tyre Nature Reserve, the largest stretch of protected sandy coastline in Lebanon, deputy manager Hassan Hamza takes me to a back room and opens a freezer.

HASSAN HAMZA: Here we have this.

SHERLOCK: Wow.

HAMZA: Be careful.

SHERLOCK: He shows me the corpse of a small green turtle, an endangered species.

HAMZA: You can see here.

SHERLOCK: Yeah, it's really tar-covered.

HAMZA: Yeah, this is a good indicator for the pollution on the sea turtle.

SHERLOCK: The turtles' nesting season begins this month. Marine experts and these volunteers tell NPR how badly the spill will affect the nesting depends on how well the beaches can be cleaned. Oil slick in the sand could harm the turtles' eggs or make the environment unsuitable for nests. Volunteers have come from all over the country to help.

HASSAN DBOUK: So we are planning...

SHERLOCK: But Hassan Dbouk, the mayor of the area who oversees all this, says it isn't enough.

DBOUK: Volunteers can - maybe they can clean 10% to 20% because we have a big quantity here.

SHERLOCK: And the reality, says Dbouk, is that the Lebanese authorities don't have the finances or the bandwidth to help.

DBOUK: We don't have money. They don't have money to do that.

SHERLOCK: Lebanon is in financial meltdown, facing near-daily protests against government mismanagement and corruption. So not expecting help from the authorities, Dbouk is trying instead to adapt heavy machinery to clean the beach with something like a giant sieve.

DBOUK: Like a big sieve 200 by 100 meters with a vibration.

SHERLOCK: But with every day that passes, the tar breaks up into smaller particles that sink into the sand and will pollute the shoreline for years to come.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, South Lebanon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "A NEW DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.