Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Landfill conflict resumes as deadline passes

[Originally posted at NOW]

Activists cut entrance to Naameh landfill once again after failure to resolve dispute.

NAAMEH, Lebanon – Climbing the quiet, winding road up the first slopes of the Aley mountains from the town of Naameh, 20km south of Beirut, the air is distinctly less fresh than one would expect from a sparsely populated, densely forested expanse. “The smell isn’t too bad at the moment, the wind’s coming from the sea,” says Tariq Gharz Eddine, mukhtar (representative) of the nearby village of Baawerta. “But wait half an hour, and you’ll end up with a pounding headache anyway.”

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before an unpleasant combination of headache, sore eyes, and a foul taste in the mouth set in. The cause was the large landfill, some 4km further up the road from where NOW spoke to Gharz Eddine Monday afternoon, at the site of a sit-in held by local residents and environmental activists since Friday.

In protest against what they allege is unlawful and hazardous abuse of the landfill by Sukleen, a private waste management firm, the demonstrators blocked the road leading to the site’s entrance, in response to which Sukleen ceased collecting trash in Beirut, causing large piles of waste to accumulate and spill onto streets all over the capital. After discussions with Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, the protestors agreed Sunday evening to reopen the road for 48 hours, after which they would close it again if a “solution” was not reached. Sukleen subsequently resumed operations in Beirut, and the excess trash has now been collected.

However, this temporary truce came to an abrupt end Tuesday evening, according to Gharz Eddine, who told NOW Tuesday afternoon that a meeting between activists and Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel had failed to resolve the dispute, and so the sit-in would indeed cut off the road once again as of 6 p.m. “You will not see any more of these passing through here,” said Gharz Eddine with a grin, gesturing toward a Sukleen truck on its way to the landfill Monday, when NOW asked what would happen if no solution was reached in 48 hours.

How exactly Sukleen will react this time to the residents’ blocking the road once more is unclear. Pascale Nassar, Sukleen’s communications manager, told NOW Tuesday afternoon she had received “no news” regarding the discussions with Charbel, and could not say what the company would do in the event that access to the landfill was again denied. “It depends on the final decision. We will plan accordingly,” said Nassar.

The dispute dates back to the late 1990s when, activists say, Sukleen signed a contract with then-Environment Minister Akram Chehayeb to operate a landfill in the area for 10 years, with a maximum quantity of 2 million tons of waste to be deposited therein. Today, more than 15 years later, the landfill is still in use, and houses some 20 million tons of trash, according to Gharz Eddin. (NOW was unable to visit the landfill itself, and Sukleen’s Nassar told NOW she could not provide or verify any details concerning the original contract signed with the government or the quantity of trash currently in the landfill by the time of publication.)

Adding to local residents’ anger, reports say it was agreed in 2008 to provide them compensation of $6 for every ton of trash deposited in the landfill – which, based on Gharz Eddin’s figures, would amount to some $120m – none of which has been paid to date.

Yet perhaps the most serious concerns raised by residents and activists pertain to the environmental and health hazards posed by the landfill, which have allegedly caused increases in several serious illnesses, including cancer.

“First, there is contamination of the earth, because the garbage produces a heavy, acidic liquid called leachate. This is spreading over a growing area – now around 300,000 sqm – and it’s generating a lot of toxic gas,” said environmental activist Mark Daou.

“In addition, there’s a lot of random dumping; of hospital waste, medicines, batteries, electronics, a lot of bad stuff. That generates damage immediately, and then in the medium and long term the toxic residues will remain in the soil,” added Daou.

As for health-related effects, Daou told NOW that in addition to respiratory illnesses, the landfill has caused a “very noticeable” increase in the number of cancer sufferers in the local area, including “many” who have no history of the disease in their families. Though no formal studies have been undertaken to substantiate a link between the landfill’s emissions and cancer, Daou believes the anecdotal evidence is persuasive.

It was with all this in mind that activists began to oppose Sukleen’s management of the landfill in the first place. Their proposed solution – which was rejected during Tuesday’s meetings – is twofold: first and foremost, the eventual closing of the landfill; but second, the sorting and selling of certain kinds of trash before it reaches Naameh in order to lessen the quantities added in the meantime.

“The sorting of trash into different categories – nylon, plastic, etc. – and then selling it is not something we cannot implement,” said Gharz Eddin. “It’s something that’s been implemented all over the world, and it can be implemented easily in Lebanon.”

“The government could actually make money doing this. If they don’t want to be responsible as a government, we can implement it. It could be a business.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

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