Environment, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

ENVIRONMENT-LEBANON: Building On Top Of The World’s Toxic Waste

Michel Chevallier

BEIRUT, Jun 3 1998 (IPS) - Lebanon has the sorry distinction of being a master in the art of concealing waste disposal behind real estate development and disguising toxic waste as raw materials.

Over the past 15 years, a few people have made huge profits out of importing toxic waste into the country. For most of the population, though, it has brought only ill-health and misery.

In this densely populated country (with 400 inhabitants per square kilometre), real estate developers are turning their attention to dumping grounds, such as the Normandy landfill on Beirut’s seashore.

According to Ali Darwish of GreenLine, Lebanon’s foremost environmental group, the Normandy site contains domestic refuse as well as an unknown amount of toxic waste, probably imported illegally.

During the war it was a no-man’s land, but now the dump belongs to Solidere, the government-sponsored company responsible for rebuilding Beirut’s war-torn city centre.

The Linor ‘project’, in Jounieh bay, north of Beirut, was begun at the end of the war. According to reliable sources, this one- square kilometre dumping ground is owned by companies whose interested parties allegedly include prime minister Rafik Hariri and interior minister Michel Murr, among others.

“The mix of domestic, industrial and poisonous waste (at Linor) poses a potentially very high risk,” Dr Wilson Rizk, a Lebanese authority on environmental matters. Despite this, last winter the site was divided up into lots and offered for sale as a building plot.

Not far away stands the Bourj Hammoud dump, which is still in public hands. But there are potentially large gains to be made by handing these areas of wasteland over to private enterprise for development.

There are real dangers for those who speak out about this sort of development. “There is money at stake behind every environmental scandal, but I would put myself at risk if I said they all involved corruption. There is a line that mustn’t be crossed,” warns Fouad Hamdane, Greenpeace’s representative in Lebanon.

Greenpeace has a particularly important role to play in Lebanon because of the weakness of the country’s political opposition, Hamdane believes.

The 38-year-old former journalist has appeared in court twice in connection with his work, and only avoided prison because of Greenpeace’s international reputation. Greenpeace and Amnesty International are both ready to act quickly on his behalf, because they know he could be imprisoned at any time.

“There have been attempts to frighten me. I’ve been accused of being an Israeli agent, I’ve been offered money and highly paid jobs. But I always tell them they are wasting their time: if I leave, someone else will take my place,” comments Hamdane.

The 40-year-old agronomist Ali Darwish doesn’t have Hamdane’s connections. He’s been arrested, watched, subjected to body searches and had films seized by the police for far more minor ‘offences’ than Hamdane’s.

This kind of intimidation is commonplace for Lebanese environmentalists. No NGO has had so many conflicts with the authorities as GreenLine and Greenpeace, says Darwish.

But their work goes on. Greenpeace, together with 16 local organisations, has been monitoring pollution in rivers and the sea since last autumn.

In the northern coastal city of Chekka, ground water analysis revealed the presence of hexachlorocyclohexanes (HCH), an ingredient in insecticide. In the European Union, dispersing HCH in water is banned.

The air in Chekka is contaminated with sulphur dioxide from two cement factories, which also leak various alkyl-benzenes into the sea. A chemical company pumps out six different kinds of halogenated hydrocarbons. This is just one example of a situation that occurs across the country.

Altogether, Lebanese industry dumps 326,000 tonnes of waste straight into rivers and the sea, from various paper factories, printing companies, tanneries, cement, fertiliser and asbestos producers, according to Greenpeace estimates.

“There’s a beach next to a five-star hotel south of Beirut where the sea contains silver oxide, sulphates, car lubricant, and lead,” says Ali Darwish. Statistics indicate a link between this uncontrolled dumping and the incidence of tumours and infantile asthma.

Part of the problem is that Lebanon lacks the most basic infrastructure for dealing with waste. For example, the country has just one sewage treatment plant, which is capable only of primary treatment (filtration). In January Greenpeace condemned the installation of new water pipes because they contain asbestos.

Pierre Malychef, a pharmacist and member of the U.N. Environment Programme’s Global 500 Forum, is another campaigner who has suffered threats and harassment for his work. Last November he was assaulted in the Beirut suburb where he lives.

“I’m convinced that the warning was meant for Fouad Hamdane,” he says. “But being given the third degree is a small price to pay in return for being allowed to save human lives,” he adds.

In 1987 he was officially commissioned to run an inquiry into 2,400 tonnes of toxic waste that had been illegally imported from Europe. This led to him being beaten and detained on a charge of tarnishing Lebanon’s image. He very nearly died as a result of an assassination attempt.

The waste came from an Italian treatment company that was unable to process the amount of refuse it had. According to different sources, the company paid between 12 and 22 million dollars to dump the waste in Lebanon. The import certificate described it as ‘raw material for industry and agriculture’, says Greenpeace.

In 1988 and 1994 Malychef was again commissioned to examine waste that had come to light in several parts of the country. He found a mixture of highly toxic chemicals: dioxin, Agent Orange (the defoliant spread by U.S. troops in Vietnam), as well as the Bhopal poison, methyl isocialate, were leaking from of thousands of broken barrels into the Jounieh area aquifer.

Barrels with the words ‘Seveso Italia’ contained clothes which Malychef believes were worn during the decontamination of Bhopal.

According to Pierre Pharaon, Lebanon’s environment minister from 1995-96, Italy has threatened to cut off reconstruction aid if Lebanon demands that the waste is repatriated and landfills are decontaminated. The cost of decontamination is thought to run into tens of millions of dollars.

Studies by NGOs show hundreds of cases of allergies and skin, lung and kidney among people living near the waste.

Nobody knows how much of this toxic waste has been imported, nor where it all is. Discovering new dumping grounds is a matter of chance, as no systematic research and decontamination work has ever been carried out.

Yet each passing month brings new disclosures. In December, an anonymous source told media about thousands of lead oxide barrels rusting next to an oil refinery which has been closed for years.

Hundreds of barrels of paint from Canada, and crushed plastics mixed with chemicals from Germany and Belgium were still being imported as late as 1996.

Because they were labelled as ‘raw materials’, they appeared to comply with the Basel Convention on waste trading. However, Canada and Belgium were forced to repatriate their containers last December after a campaign by environmentalists.

An amendment to the Basle Convention came into force in January, prohibiting the export of toxic waste outside OECD countries, regardless of whether the waste can be used as raw material for another industry. The states parties to the Convention must now agree on an export-prohibited waste list.

Lebanon’s problems with toxic imports are probably not over yet.

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