CAIRO // Tourist businesses and environmental activists said yesterday they would take legal action against the energy company whose negligence may have contributed to an oil leak last week off the coast of the Red Sea resort of Hurghada.
Egypt's government confirmed on Monday that a "limited" amount of oil had spilled from a rig operating in the Red Sea and that clean-up efforts had already succeeded in containing much of the damage. Media reports suggested, however, that 20 kilometres of coastline had been polluted. Activists and businessmen complained that information about the extent of the spill had been withheld. That lack of candour, as well as the government's delays in publicly announcing the accident, amounted to something like a whitewash by responsible officials in the oil industry and the government, they said. "The problem is that the press releases or the statements issued on TV talk shows by representatives of both the ministry of environment and of petroleum were inaccurate and reached the point of cover-up," said Hesham Gabr, the chairman of the Egyptian Chamber of Diving and Water Sports. Mr Gabr declined to name the oil company in question because its involvement had not yet been confirmed.
The lack of available information, however, indicates that the government may have stayed silent in order to protect a state-owned oil extraction company, he said. In statements to the media, Egyptian energy and environmental officials said they were using the oil's chemical "fingerprint" to trace the source of the contamination. The government has characterised the accident as an oil "leak" as opposed to a spill from a passing oil tanker. "I am already afraid that the company responsible for the leak did not declare or announce the spill early to try and cover it up to avoid claims," said Mr Gabr, adding that the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) said the malfunctioning oil rig was continuing to leak as late as Monday.
The Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Yawm reported yesterday that oil had contaminated 20km of the Red Sea coastline. According to the newspaper, Egypt's shore protection authority estimated the amount of spilt oil at about 20 to 40 barrels. Mr Gabr and others confirmed the government's claim that the leakage had so far caused little obvious damage to the Red Sea coastline. Oil was seen on the shore near El Gouna, a ritzy Red Sea resort town, as well as several other beach locations. Most of that oil, however, has already been cleaned. The region's lucrative diving and water sports industry remained unaffected, Mr Gabr said, with no reported closings of any of the dive sites. Local environmentalists, particularly HEPCA, said the leak had contaminated two small Red Sea islands, Mr Gabr said. While both Taweela and Um Al Hemat islands are uninhabited by humans, both are protected sanctuaries for marine birds. Despite assurances that the vast majority of the leaked oil had already been cleaned - with much of the clean-up apparently having taken place before the government openly discussed the incident - officials say tourism in the region is particularly sensitive to such environmental hazards. Mr Gabr said he hoped legal action on the part of Egyptian civil society organisations would compel the government to be more candid about future incidents. Even aside from environmental concerns on what remains a relatively pristine coastline, the stakes are high for Egypt's economy, said Mr Gabr. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org