Air Date: Week of September 11, 1998
During the chaos of Lebanon's civil war, the middle eastern country became a dumping ground for toxic waste. Foreign companies paid off Lebanese militia leaders for permission to illegally dispose of many kinds of industrial chemicals from European nations, especially Italy and Germany. Some of these dangerous wastes have been returned to the nations that produced them. But as Reese Erlich reports from Beirut, far from all the of the imported toxins have been cleaned up.
CURWOOD: During the chaos of Lebanon's civil war, the Middle Eastern country became a dumping ground for toxic waste. Foreign companies paid off Lebanese militia leaders for, quote, "permission," unquote, to dispose illegally of many kinds of industrial chemicals from European nations, especially from Italy and Germany. Some of these dangerous wastes have been returned to the nations that produced them. But as Reese Erlich reports from Beirut, not all of the imported toxins have been cleaned up.
(Engine and machinery sounds)
HAMDAN: What we're seeing here is big Caterpillars working in a quarry.
ERLICH: Lebanese environmentalist Fuad Hamdan looks on as a bulldozer slowly moves dirt and rock, inching closer to a spot riddled with toxic chemicals. He's a Greenpeace campaigner in Beirut.
HAMDAN: That was in the late 80s the main storage site of about 16,000 barrels of toxic waste from Italy, that were illegally imported from Italy to Lebanon at that time.
ERLICH: The quarry near Beirut once held 16,000 barrels and 20 containers of heavy metals, toxic pesticides, and other deadly chemicals. During Lebanon's civil war, Jelly Wax, an Italian company, paid a right-wing Christian militia group to store the toxics here. In 1996, companies from Germany, Canada, and Belgium, secretly delivered toxic chemicals to other parts of Lebanon. Today, Lebanon is paying the price. According to a World Bank study, toxic dumping, along with Lebanon's own sewage and toxic waste problems, has led to contamination of 70% of the country's drinking water. Wilson Rizk is a Lebanese professor of hydrology who studies water pollution.
RIZK: [Speaks in French] TRANSLATOR: A lot of places scattered all over Lebanon, especially in the mountainous areas, are contaminated with toxic wastes. When you have heavy rain and melting snow, which is often the case in the winter and autumn, you have lots of water carrying the toxics into rivers and into the groundwater as well.
ERLICH: From 1975 until 1990, the country's violent civil war meant there was no central government, let alone environmental controls. So, the toxic dumping went unhindered, with a tragic human cost. In 1987, the Lebanese Forces militia hired a family displaced by the war to guard the Schnanir Quarry. They lived on the site. The head of the family used one of the chemicals to keep off insects, and another as soap. A Franciscan nun, whose school is located less than 100 yards from the quarry, said she tried to warn him.
NUN: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: The man of the family was young and very healthy. We said, "You have to be careful. These chemicals may be very toxic." But the man said, "Don't worry; it's only paint." I told him he shouldn't touch it, but he kept on insisting, "It's only paint. It's not dangerous." Eventually he got cancer. He died 10 months later.
(A door opens; ambient conversation)
ERLICH: Pierre Malychef owns a pharmacy. He's also one of Lebanon's most respected environmental scientists. Back in 1988, the Italian chemical barrels began to bubble over and explode, so the Lebanese forces asked Mr. Malychef to test them. He alerted the public that the barrels contain toxic chemicals, and he discovered other dumping sites scattered around the country. The Lebanese Forces were not pleased. The government jailed him for a week for allegedly giving false testimony during an investigation of the dumping, but the charges were dropped. Months later, thugs who he says were paid by the Lebanese Forces severely beat him.
MALYCHEF: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: I was finding all this toxic material so quickly. It became a real problem for the Lebanese forces. If the government returned the toxics to Italy, then the Lebanese militias would be obliged to return a big part of the money they got for taking the toxics in the first place. This didn't make them very happy, and they retaliated against me.
ERLICH: Mr. Malychef and other environmentalists weren't intimidated. When the toxic dumping became exposed, the public was outraged. In the midst of the public outcry, the Italian government shipped the waste back to Italy after Jelly Wax refused to act. Lebanon's Minister of Environment, Akram Shouhayeb, explains.
SHOUHAYEB: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: We took out a huge number of toxic barrels and sent them back to Italy, so we dealt with it in a legal and logical way. These toxics entered illegally but they eventually went out legally. But the judicial file is still open for all toxic dumping cases. Investigation is still open because there may be more barrels.
ERLICH: While the investigation may still be technically open, environmentalists say nothing much is being done in practice. Only one person, a Lebanese citizen, was ever charged in connection with any of the toxic dumping cases. Others remain at large. Last year, Lebanon passed a law banning the importation of toxic chemicals. But Professor Rizk says the country needs to further strengthen its environmental laws.
RIZK: [Speaks in French] TRANSLATOR: Anyone involved in the traffic of toxic wastes should be prosecuted. Under the Basel Convention, which bans the export of toxic chemicals, everyone involved in such trafficking should be punished. Unfortunately, our local legislation isn't strong enough. We should strengthen our Lebanese laws to prevent the repetition of this kind of hideous traffic. The current Minister of Environment is full of good intentions, but he doesn't have the necessary laws to really crack down.
(Earth moving and crunching sounds from machinery)
ERLICH: The Environment Minister admits that two sites here at the Shnanir Quarry are highly contaminated from the Italian chemicals. He says they'll only clean up one of the sites, however. Greenpeace's Fuad Hamdan doubts that they will really remediate either site.
HAMDAN: One of these days, the two spots will be rehabilitated the Lebanese way, meaning that they will be mixed with the rocks and stones and sent to construction sites to build roads or buildings, endangering, in this way, the workers.
(Earth moving sounds continue)
ERLICH: Since the law banning importation of toxic chemicals was passed last year, environmentalists say there have been no new toxics delivered to Lebanon. Containers of Canadian and Belgian toxics have been waiting in the Beirut Harbor and are scheduled for shipment back to their home countries. Lebanese environmentalists say, however, that the government is doing nothing to clean up the quarries and sites where the toxics are contaminating the land and groundwater. For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Erlich in Beirut.
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