The stench of garbage: Metn and Greater Beirut’s daily nightmare
The new Environment Minister was very reassuring, but prolonged exposure to this pollution may not be completely risk-free, warned an expert.
In Dora, the situation is no longer tolerable. It is a daily nightmare according to Hala, a resident of the neighborhood. “We cannot open the windows, neither in the car, nor in the house,” she said. “To walk the short distance that separates my car from my house, I ought to cover my nose with a wet handkerchief. Most of the residents now wear masks. This stink follows us along the Metn coastline, wherever we go.” Hala has no places no hope in the Lebanese authorities. “They say that this situation will last only one month, but how can we trust them?” she asked.
The Bourj Hammoud-Jdeideh dumpsite is certainly not new, but for several days, bad odors are literally poisoning the lives of nearby residents. The Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), the body responsible for the waste management contracts with the private company, provided an explanation a few days ago, which was reiterated by the new Environment Minister, Fady Jreissati, on Tuesday: the particularly strong odors emanating from the dump are the result of the arrival of a large amount of old waste, stored in the Port district in 2016, waste that was placed there before completing the construction of the landfill areas at the coastal dumpsite. These mounds of garbage have remained at the Port for all these years due to a shortage of space, according to the officials. They are being transported now because space has finally been allocated to them. But moving this old waste, in addition to the vagaries of the weather, is affecting the entire Metn coastline and beyond.
The pestilential odors are causing discomfort, it is true, but they are also fueling fears related to their possible impact on public health, which is causing a real panic in the city. Minister Jreissati said yesterday, during an inspection tour of the Bourj Hammoud site, that the contractor’s explanations had reassured him, and that the unpleasant smells, although very strong, are harmless. But is this really the case?
Charbel Afif, an air pollution expert, and a Research Professor at the Faculty of Sciences at the Saint-Joseph University (USJ), maintains that the public’s fears are not totally groundless or unjustified. “The emissions released by the waste contain, among other things, hydrogen sulfide (H2S), giving them the smell of rotten eggs that we sometimes detect in classrooms during experiments,” he explained. “In dumpsites, where many types of waste are mixed, several sulfur compounds emanate from them during the fermentation process. The odors also indicate the presence of ammonia and several volatile organic compounds (VOC, a generic name given to molecules characterized by a high volatility). Lastly, small particles, or dust in other words, are released into the air enhanced by the erosion, wind… These particles will carry pollutants, such as heavy metals and other compounds, as well as bacteria (the proliferation of which is increased by the putrefaction), which allows them a larger [degree of] dissemination in the atmosphere.”
Another aggravating factor, according to the specialist, is linked to the season. “Due to meteorological factors, there is less vertical dispersion of gases, [which is] the reason why the odors are mainly spreading horizontally, affecting with full force the residential areas,” he said. In the event of rain, there will be no more dust, but the pollutants will then be absorbed by the soil and water, becoming an additional source of pollution.
Regarding the impact of this pollution on public health, Afif explained that risks are greater for the “areas that are very close, 500 meters or less, to the dumpsite, where there are large concentrations of emissions.” He added that “in more distant areas, the concentrations of gas emissions are lower. Smells are not pleasant, but the atmosphere is less toxic. Nevertheless, even in more remote areas, long exposure to chronic odors can affect health.” The health hazards are mostly linked to respiratory diseases and allergies, as well as to the spread of bacteria, according to the expert.
The most serious problem is that the impact of these activities on the landfill’s surroundings was not assessed, according to Afif. that the expert then highlighted the existence of a law on air quality, that was adopted in May 2018, included the concept of “odor nuisance”, even if the implementing decrees of the law are still not published. Yet, neither the quality of life, nor the health of the nearby residents, were taken into consideration, as occurs in other countries where strict standards are applied.
From Naameh to the Anti-Lebanon Range
On Wednesday, the new Environment Minister toured the Bourj Hammoud garbage dump to meet the contractor and inquire about the situation that has caused outcries across the entire region. He “apologized for these mistakes tarnishing the garbage management since 40 years,” but he insisted on “reassuring the general public regarding the explanations provided by the contractor,” stressing that “work is on track and progresses satisfactorily.”
Jreissati did not hide the difficult fact that a new crisis would emerge when the Bourj Hammoud-Jdeideh landfill, which serves a large part of Mount Lebanon and Beirut, becomes saturated, in April at the latest. “After the vote of confidence, I will ask to include the garbage issue in the agenda of the first Cabinet meeting,” the Minister said. While promoting solutions based on planning, the Minister considered that, as an emergency response, “reopening the Naameh landfill (editor’s note: that served Greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon from 1997 to 2015), is one of the suggested solutions, including also the expansion of the Bourj Hammoud dump, among other options. But I do not want to talk of any solution in advance, since we are still studying the issue.”
The stench provoked the ire of Kataeb party leader, MP Samy Gemayel. He tweeted that “history will not show mercy to the criminals who planned, implemented and defended the ominous death dumpsites on the Metn shoreline.” Likewise, MP Élias Hankache, belonging to the same parliamentary bloc, deplored the governmental paralysis of previous years, considering that “dumping in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range became possible now that the security situation is no longer an obstacle.”
Considerable uncertainties over a potential widening of the crisis are still lingering only a few weeks before a vital dumpsite in the country will be nearing capacity. In this atmosphere, there is no choice but to… hold our breath.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 7th of February)