Lebanon’s Environment Minister: The Nero of Chekka
By: Bassam Alkantar
Published Friday, June 1, 2012
The northern Lebanese port city of Chekka is already beset with pollution from cement factories and asbestos. Today, it faces yet another ecological concern, in the form of a controversial incinerator.
Lebanese Minister of Environment Nazem Khoury is close to signing a request permitting the municipality of Chekka to operate an incinerator for household and medical waste.
Meanwhile, the Council of Development and Reconstruction (CDR) has been reluctant to implement the government’s plan for solid household waste management adopted in 2010, based on the principle of converting waste into energy.
Khoury’s decision to permit the Chekka municipality to build a waste incinerator represents a suicidal decision that promises to send Lebanon back a decade in terms of waste management.
In 2002, the Interior Ministry commissioned a Swiss company to “develop a national strategy for solid waste management in Lebanon and prepare the terms of reference.” The company recommended building two waste incinerators—one in the Chekka region and the other in the Sibline region—in addition to setting up landfills in those areas.
At the time, environmental organizations had rejected outright the decision to incinerate Lebanon’s trash, since 60 percent of the country’s waste is organic or semi-liquid, and thus difficult to burn without additives.
Likewise, the remaining amounts of paper and cardboard (21%), plastic (8%), textiles (5%), glass (5%), and metal (3%) could all be recycled. Burning them would waste these materials and pollute the air.
This is alongside the fact that the incinerators would require constant maintenance and technical support not available in Lebanon. There is also the related problem of the emission of carcinogenic dioxins and toxic ash, which must be disposed of by burial, in the same manner as nuclear waste.
Moreover, the company’s report claimed the cost of building one incinerator to be around US$95 million. But subsequent reports indicated that the cost of an incinerator in Switzerland, a world pioneer in waste management, is closer to $350 million, not to mention the cost of maintenance.
How then did Mayor Farajalla Kfouri manage to bring a garbage incinerator to Lebanon, and at what price? The Environment Ministry could not answer the question or launch an investigation. It did not even demand the customs manifest pertaining to the incinerator brought into the country without authorization from any official body.
According to information obtained by Al-Akhbar, a number of environmental activists in Chekka sent a letter to minister Khoury at the end of 2011 objecting to the incinerator plan. They reminded the ministry of its commitment to uphold the Stockholm Agreement, which forbids the construction of incinerators.
This prompted General Director of Environment Berg Hatchian to send a technical team from the ministry to study the planned incinerator. Their report, also sent to the municipality, concluded that the environmental impact of operating the incinerator needs to be studied and that its technical specifications, operating capacity, and the filters used to purify its emissions must be reported.
The report also pointed to administrative irregularities pertaining to the decision of the municipal council of Chekka to buy the incinerator. Such decisions are legally subject to prior investigation by the Audit Bureau.
But Minister Khoury unexpectedly requested that the case be transferred to his office. He decided not to follow the recommendations of his administrative team and allowed the municipality to operate the incinerator on a trial basis.
Director of social activist organization IndyAct Wael Hmaidan told Al-Akhbar that the “Lebanese Coalition towards Zero Waste” firmly rejects the Environment Ministry’s decision to allow the construction of incinerators in Chekka or any other region.
He believes that the decision is a blow to the national environmental campaign pushing for legislation on the matter of solid waste management in Lebanon and forbidding the use of incinerators.
Hmaidan announced that the Zero Waste coalition, which involves dozens of organizations, will begin to directly protest the operation of the incinerator. The Chekka incinerator will be main point in the conference to be held by the coalition on Monday, June 4, to coincide with the World Environment Day (the next day), [following a National Day of Action on Zero Waste on Sunday].
Environmental activist Georges Abi Chahine said that the residents of Chekka, who are opposed to the incinerator, will fight the project with all available peaceful means. They are in the process of raising a petition to the Environment Minister demanding that he reverse his decision allowing the operation of the waste incinerator.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.