Archaeologists Sound Alarm about Risk BP Drilling in Libya Could Pose to Ancient Sites

With its rich ancient sites only recently opened up to visitors, Libya‘s slowly developing tourism industry may be in trouble before it really even gets going. According to archaeologists, 7th-century-BC cities and historic shipwrecks — many of them still being surveyed — could be at risk from BP‘s plans to sink an oil well off the country’s coast before the end of the year.Already controversial due to the company’s alleged role in influencing the release of the Lockerbie bomber in order to win the drilling rights, the well in Libya’s Gulf of Sirte would be 200 meters deeper than the one in the Gulf of Mexico, where a leak in a BP well created the world’s worst maritime spill. A similar spill could threaten the ancient harbor town of Apollonia, which sits five meters below sea level, and two World Heritage Sites in the Tripolitania region, according to the Independent.
Ten of Thousands of Roman-Era Shipwrecks
“They are very important sites and they are very fragile,” Claude Sintes, the director of the Museum of Ancient Arles in the south of France and director of the sub-aquatic team of the French archaeological mission to Libya, told the British newspaper. “If there is a problem with oil, like in the U.S., and it washes on to the shore it’s going to be very difficult to clean the remains because the stones are porous.”
Other archaeologists say that there are tens of thousands of wrecks from the Roman period off the Libyan coast, but that maps of the seabed are not detailed enough to know their precise location — or to determine that they won’t be damaged by seismic surveying or drilling.
The Roman Amphitheater at Leptis Magna, one of the potentially threatened sites. Photo by Travcoa Travel via Flickr.
BP says the company has reviewed its plans for Libya in light of the Gulf of Mexico spill and will “move forward with great caution,” according to the Telegraph. But not everyone is convinced.
Whole Mediterranean Could Be Impacted
“The problem is not BP or Libya. The sea has no boundaries and when accidents happen, in national or international waters, effects are felt in the whole Mediterranean,” said Antonio D’Alli, the chairman of the Italian Senate’s environment commission. “Considering it is already one of the most oil-polluted seas in the world, the impact of a major spill could be irreversible.”
Even more problematically, Libya has “little experience supervising the risks of deep-water drilling” and is “the only Mediterranean country aside from Croatia not to have a contingency plan in place for handling an oil spill in its waters,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
And a potential oil spill isn’t the only threat facing Libya’s coasts and ancient treasures. “Tankers already pump out bilge; there are already oil platforms; and ancient sites are being bulldozed because their coastal locations are so valuable,” Dr. Nic Flemming, a British archaeologist, told the Independent. “Countries sign up to protection treaties, but if somebody comes along with a lot of money and says ‘I want to build a hotel that will create so many jobs,’ then the treaties are forgotten.”

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