High voltage lines in Mansourieh: The key to understanding a 20-year-old controversy

The installation of the high voltage lines is opposed by local residents who are concerned about the health implications, while the Minister of Energy is determined to complete the electric grid

Tension is high in Mansouriyeh as residents are opposed to the installation of high voltage lines near their homes. Photo Suzanne Baaklini

The more than 20-year-old controversy over the installation of high-voltage power transmission lines in the region of Mansouriyeh-Aïn Najm, in the Metn district to the south-east of Beirut, is back in the spotlight as the Ministry of Energy is determined to continue the process of improving the country’s power grid despite the opposition of local residents who are worried about the effects the lines might have on their health.

Objective: Completing the power grid

Since 1998, successive governments have worked on the construction of a national grid of high-voltage lines mounted on giant pylons across Lebanon, from north to south, covering more than 1,200 kilometers. These lines are intended to transport and distribute an electric current of 220 volts throughout the country and link Lebanon’s electrical grid to those of its neighbors. The nationwide network is almost complete, except for a stretch of just over a kilometer, in the Mansouriyeh-Aïn Najm area. The commissioning of this section, which would link the Bsalim power plant in Metn to Aramoun in the Aley district, via the Mkallès station, would essentially complete the power grid and allow it to be brought fully on line.

But residents of Mansouriyeh, Aïlout, Daychouniyé, Aïn Najm, Aïn Saadé and Beit Mery have been blocking construction work since 1996, when the plan devised by the Ministry of Energy was first leaked, claiming that the overhead power lines carry health risks.

The area

The area in question covers a few square kilometers and includes several apartment buildings, about fifty private plots, as well as schools and churches. Local estimates put the number of residents at several thousand.

Health risks: the heart of the problem

Local residents are concerned about the effects of continuous exposure to strong electromagnetic fields, as well as the dangers of contact with the electricity lines, if the high voltage lines are installed. According to the residents, the trajectory planned by the authorities does not adhere to international standards concerning the recommended distance from residential areas, standards which were created to minimize any exposure to harm.

The Government’s position: assurances but few details

On Friday, May 10, the Lebanese Minister of Energy, Nada Boustani, reiterated that the installation of high voltage lines did not represent a health risk to residents. "International studies have shown that the installation of high-voltage lines has no impact on the health of residents," Boustani said in a press conference held with the Director General of Electricite Du Lebanon (EDL), Kamal Hayek at the Ministry’s headquarter.

"The public must understand that we have carried out all studies to reassure the inhabitants of the Mansouriyeh region," Hayek added, noting that since 1998, when the construction of the national 220-volt transmission network began, residents of 11 localities expressed reservations about the project, and five studies have been conducted in the last 15 years.

"After these 11 complaints, we asked Electricité de France (EDF) to conduct a study on the subject in 2004. According to EDF's conclusions, the exposure tests gave results that were well below the limits set by the European Union, estimating them to be up to four times lower than these limits,” said the Director of EDL. "The Mission Laïque Française in Tripoli asked to conduct its own study and commissioned the company SOCOTEC in 2005 which concluded that there were no health risks. Others went to court and filed a complaint with the Council of State, which concluded that European standards had been respected," said Hayek

"This leaves Mansouriyeh. In 2005, the government reached an agreement with the local residents. The pylons were built, but the cables were not installed, pending the conclusions of an EU study. This study concluded that the installation of high-voltage lines posed no risk, but the residents were still not convinced. In 2010, the Ministry of Health conducted its own study, which reached the same conclusions," said Hayek.

Commenting on the issue of the electromagnetic field, Hayek said, "everything depends on the intensity of the current, not the distance from the high voltage lines".

(Read, in Le Commerce du Levant : Electricity: The government has a free hand)

What are the "European standards"?

The following is an excerpt from a document published in 2013 by the French Ministry of the Ecological and Solidarity Transition:

With regard to magnetic fields, "EU Recommendation 1999/519 / EC of 12 July 1999 adopts 100 microteslas (μT) as the exposure limit for the public”, stating that it is an instantaneous limit value aimed at preventing acute effects, in the absence of any proof that associates long-term exposure to electromagnetic fields with pathologies (such as cancer). It does not set a mean value of exposure”.

This recommendation was incorporated into French law by virtue of the Decree of 17 May 2001 (...) which stipulates in Article 12 that “for alternating current (AC) electric networks, the location of works in relation to places accessible to third parties must be such that (...) the associated magnetic field does not exceed 100 μT under steady-state operating conditions”.

According to a WHO study published in 2007, a line transmitting 230 kV of current, emits, directly under the infrastructure, a magnetic field of up to 11.8 μT during consumption peaks, which may be halved during the average use of the current. The further from the lines, the lower these numbers are. At a distance of 15 meters, there will be a magnetic field of 2 μT on average, and double that level in high consumption periods. At a distance of 91 m, a field amounting to 0.08 μT is generated in an average period of power consumption.

Precaution principle

Although the limit value of 100 μT is therefore well in excess of the exposure experienced even directly under the high-voltage lines, the fact remains that in an opinion on the health effects of extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields, issued on April 8 In 2010, the AFSSET (French Agency for Environmental and Occupational Health Safety, which has since become ANSES, the Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety) recommended, as a precaution, to no longer build or develop buildings of a sensitive nature (hospitals, maternity wards, childcare facilities, etc.) within 100 meters of very high voltage transmission lines. Other organizations recommend instead to establish a distance of one meter per 1kV (1000 volts), so, in the case of a 220 kV project, a distance of 220 meters from the lines.

European legislation is, however, more detailed regarding the protection of citizens and surrounding infrastructure against the risk of electrocution, including calculation regarding the minimum cable height. For example, French law, in a Decree dated April 2, 1991 which sets the technical conditions to be met for the distribution of electrical energy, calculates this height according to the land use, the nature of the facilities it contains, the probable proximity of the installation and the risks of the cables moving in the event of bad weather.

While Lebanese officials assure the public that they are complying with European standards, they fall short on communicating the technical elements, and are content to refer to the reports and studies published on the website of the Ministry of Energy.

The purchase of the land by the state?

At a press conference on May 10, Mrs. Boustani recalled that the State has offered to buy the apartments of any local residents wishing to leave. "The decision is yours," she added to the disaffected residents. On May 8, the Minister of Information, Jamal Jarrah, had already noted at the end of a meeting of the Council of Ministers, that the State had proposed to buy the homes of those who believe that the lines are a health concern.

In order to complete the construction of the lines in question, the State purchased areas of land in 1998. In 2012, the government decided to evaluate the price of the apartments in the region in order to buy them, expropriate the residents and install the overhead high-voltage lines.

What about installing the cables underground?

On several occasions, residents have proposed installing the power lines underground. However, the authorities have stated that this option is more expensive than the one currently adopted. At the press conference on May 10, the Director of EDL said that the underground option "would have required the use of 300 plots, closer to homes." He further explained that such an option "does not eliminate the electromagnetic field" and "poses problems concerning the protection and the stability of the network". "No country in the world has installed all [its] high-voltage lines underground," he said, adding that doing that “around Mansouriyeh would cost $ 21 million."

Who supports the residents?

On Wednesday, Kataeb chief and Metn MP Samy Gemayel said that he was standing by the angry residents. His colleague Elias Hankache has participated in the sit-ins held by the locals. Like the Kataeb, the Progressive Socialist Party of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has expressed its dismay at the excessive use of force by the ISF at the work site. For his part, the Maronite patriarch, Mgr Bechara Raï had at one time endorsed the solution proposed by the Minister of Energy for the State to buy the homes of those who wanted to move. However, when the conflict took on a confessional aspect, Mgr Rai appealed for calm and condemned the clashes between the residents and the police.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 11th of May)

The more than 20-year-old controversy over the installation of high-voltage power transmission lines in the region of Mansouriyeh-Aïn Najm, in the Metn district to the south-east of Beirut, is back in the spotlight as the Ministry of Energy is determined to continue the process of improving the country’s power grid despite the opposition of local residents who are worried about the effects...

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