Red Sea: the other oil spill

HURGHADA, Egypt – When Hamdy Shahat and his four-man crew first set sail from this resort town last month, he expected to return with a boatload full of red snapper to sell at the market later that night.

Instead, the 33-year-old skipper came back empty-handed, except for several streaks of thick, brown oil gummed along the hull of his wooden boat.

Thousands of miles from the Gulf of Mexico, the site of BP’s massive oil leak, Shahat had inadvertently discovered Egypt’s own oil spill. Now, just like most Americans, Egyptians are asking what went wrong in the Red Sea.

For fishermen like Shahat, navigating around small patches of oil floating in the otherwise turquoise-colored Rea Sea is not all that new. Egypt’s portion of the waterway is, after all, home to about 180 oil platforms and heavily trafficked by massive tankers heading north from the Middle East to Europe through the Suez Canal. In an environment like this one, small-scale oil leaks are almost the norm.

But this time, the oil was nearly impossible to avoid.

“I remember the slick looking like a lot more oil than usual,” said Shahat. “The way the sunlight hit the surface of the water the patch looked so big that we thought it was actually underwater coral.”

Last month, Shahat was among the first in Hurghada to discover, like other fishermen who inadvertently sailed through it, what some experts are already calling one of Egypt’s worst oil spills in recent years.

Many details regarding the source of Egypt’s latest spill, which washed up on the shores of an area rich in biodiversity and popular with foreign tourists, are still unknown.

The leak, initially reported to have blanketed a 12-mile stretch of sea, was first reported on June 18, though many here believe the oil started seeping into the water days earlier.

Scientists and conservationists admit that serious environmental damage was limited to only a few offshore islands because of strong currents and winds that quickly pushed the slick to Hurghada’s shoreline, rather than underwater to the coral reefs.

And by most accounts, the total amount of oil spilled in Egypt was small when compared to other international incidents, like the BP spill that was finally capped on Thursday.

But for many residents in Hurghada, there is little comfort knowing they won’t have to face the huge levels of crude oil that is now washing up on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico.

The uncertainty over exactly what happened in the Red Sea in June, coupled with the possibility of larger spills in the future, is enough to keep everyone here on edge.

Nearly one month after the spill’s discovery, very few details have emerged regarding the source of the leak and the actual amount of oil released, prompting accusations of government mismanagement from a host of activists, independent scientists and local businessmen.

Amr Ali, director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Agency, an organization started by a group of divers, is leading the charge against the government’s handling of what Ali calls a “catastrophic” spill. The parties responsible for the leak, Ali said, did not notify anyone of the spill until Hurghada’s fishermen literally sailed into it — a full three days after it started.

“This is not just about the spill — it’s about how crises like this are handled with zero transparency,” he said. “Whoever caused this spill should not get away without a penalty.”

Ali said he was surprised to hear Egypt’s government eventually announce that they had sealed the leak, while simultaneously pleading ignorance on the exact location of the source.

Video footage shot by Ali’s organization, which was later posted to the group’s YouTube channel days after the start of the spill, shows an oil-like substance floating in the water outside an offshore drilling platform. In the video, a small boat dumps what appear to be chemical dispersants into the water near the rig.

The platform is identifiable in the footage as a similar rig run by PetroGulf Misr, a government-controlled oil company based near Geisum Island, just north of Hurghada.

For its part, the company has denied any involvement in the spill.

Khaled Boraie, a spokesman for PetroGulf Misr, provided GlobalPost only the following statement: “We have no relation with the oil spill in Hurghada.”

A sign displayed in the lobby of the company’s Cairo’s office proudly announced that they had gone 107 days without incident or accident.

Egypt’s petroleum ministry finally weighed in one week after the incident, issuing a lengthy press release denying that the company’s platform could have caused any spillage and offering several possible alternative sources.

“The spill was due to passing oil tankers that discharged their ballasts or spilled oil from their loads and then the wind likely spread it to the beaches,” said Khaled Ismail, a chemist with the government-run Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation, echoing the press release.

Another possible source of oil, which only amounted to between 30 and 50 barrels, according to Ismail, was older sludge spilled years ago on nearby islands that had melted under higher-than-average heat and slid back into the Red Sea.

Several independent scientists, however, refute those claims.

“I cannot accept [the ministry’s account] because the amount of oil found was much more than would come from a passing ship. And it was all crude oil,” said Salah el-Haggar, a professor of energy and environmental studies at the American University in Cairo. “They are aware of the problem but we are not. So we still don’t know how this happened and who is responsible.”

Though Egypt’s petroleum and environmental ministries were generally praised for the rapid cleanup of Hurghada’s beaches — thoroughly swept within just three days — many believe it was a cosmetic attempt to rescue only the areas tourists frequent.

Mahmoud Hanafy, professor of marine sciences at the Suez Canal University, worries that although the spill was limited in size, lingering pollution may have already disrupted the ecology on the islands off Hurghada’s coast.

The uninhabited Northern Islands are home to a variety of species of fish and turtles and also serve as nesting grounds for the white-eyed gull, a “near threatened” species endemic to the Red Sea. The oil washing up during the initially unreported first few days of the spill hit these beaches hard, according to Dr. Hanafy.

“The problem is that the spill happened in an area with a sensitive ecosystem. This is a very valuable piece of land for diving, as an ecological site and for oil production,” Hanafy said. “The challenge for Egypt is to figure out how to reach a balance between oil production and conservation of the Red Sea.”

Egypt produced an average of 685,000 barrels of oil per day in 2009. About 70 percent of that oil, according to Hanafy, comes from the fragile Red Sea ecosystem.

Many conservationists and tour operators saw a minor victory when, in the wake of the spill last month, Egypt’s petroleum minister said he would consider reducing the number of oil concessions granted in the Red Sea area.

Egypt’s tourism sector, by comparison, especially around the Red Sea beaches and coral reefs, is one of the largest sources of national revenue. In 2007, over 11 million foreign tourists visited Egypt, earning the country more than $7.6 billion.

Several beaches in Hurghada temporarily closed for a few days during the cleanup period last month. Sameh Hwaidak, chairman of the Red Sea Hotel Association, admits that tourism in Hurghada was not significantly affected by the spill.

But like many hoteliers here, Hwaidak watches the events transpiring in the Gulf of Mexico with grave concern, worrying that the possibility of an equally devastating oil spill in Egypt — with a similar response from the government here — would cripple the local tourism.

“We only found out about this the minute oil hit the beach. We put down booms and cleaned the sand, but that’s not the solution,” he said. “The solution is to stop the oil platforms from operating so close to our beaches.”