Eight Months After the Beirut Blast, Lebanon is Still a Toxic Wasteland

Warlords, mafias, and serious failures of governance have all combined to turn Lebanon into a dumping ground for hazardous chemicals, just like those that caused a devastating explosion in Beirut last summer.
April 13, 2021, 4:08pm
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A man surveys the damage at Beirut's port in August 2020. Photo: IBRAHIM AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

BEIRUT – Lebanese citizens are accustomed to government dysfunction on a level that borders on dystopian

It has been eight months since thousands of tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate exploded, killing more than 200 and levelling Beirut’s port. No one has yet been held accountable for the catastrophe, even though it is well-documented that political leaders were aware of the danger

But even for Lebanon, it was surprising when it was acknowledged in February that thousands of tons of more hazardous chemicals remained at the port – a “second bomb.” They were also improperly stored and apparently had not been ignited by last August’s disaster only by chance. 

"I have never seen a situation like this before in my life," an employee of the German engineering firm contracted by the Lebanese government to clean up the mess said. The engineer described chemical mixtures that had burned through the shipping containers where they had been found, and said the capital was “lucky” the disaster had not been worse.

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No one has claimed ownership of the chemicals, which include hydrochloric acid, acetone, hydrogen peroxide and hydrofluoric acid, and are still sitting at the port. The Lebanese government has yet to pay Combi Lift, the German contracting company, for the waste to be shipped to Germany for safe disposal. 

“Lebanon and it's insanity always surprises me again and again with even more bad news than expected,” said Fouad Hamdan, who worked as an environmental campaigner for Greenpeace in Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s. 

The truth is, when it comes to toxic chemicals, Lebanon’s been a disaster for decades – from the dumping of European waste to the country’s own prolific polluters to the daily offal of everyday citizens. 

During and after Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, Hamdan was at the forefront of efforts to stop illegal dumping in the country. During the war, the Lebanese Forces (LF) militia controlled Beirut’s port, and sought to make money by importing toxic waste from abroad and putting it in Lebanese landfills and quarries. 

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A sea of oil disfigures the ancient port of Byblos after an Egyptian vessel was set ablaze. Photo: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

“The Italian mafia made billions of dollars by taking toxic waste from all over Europe and dumping it in the Mediterranean and exporting it all over the world,” Hamdan said. “In the 80s – Samir Geagea [a Christian Lebanese warlord] imported the waste, and he never apologised for the mayhem he caused. Like all other warlords.”

Geagea remains a major figure in Lebanese politics with ambitions to be president. 

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“By the time the Italians came back and took whatever was visible, the LF had sold some of it to people. This stuff is so cancerous you can’t imagine – they sold it to mechanics using it to wash their hands, they burned waste in some areas and they dumped some of it in Bourj Hammoud – we don’t know how much, they don’t know how much,” Hamdan said, referring to a northern suburb of Beirut that is the centre of the country’s Armenian community and home to a decades-old and ever-growing series of seaside landfills.

The resulting scandal forced the Italian government to take back some of the remaining waste, but it never made it back to Italy, Hamdan said, referring to a Greenpeace Mediterranean report from the mid-90s. 

“When the Italians came and took it they dumped it in the sea,” Hamdan said. 

As post-war reconstruction went on, Lebanese leaders failed to build or maintain wastewater treatment infrastructure or implement any meaningful wastewater or solid waste management. Most of Lebanon’s trash is not sorted before it hits a landfill or a dump, and laws against illegal dumping are rarely enforced. 

A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of last year's explosion. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

A helicopter puts out a fire at the scene of last year's explosion. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

There are nearly 1,000 open dumps across the country, and landfills are poorly managed and well over their intended capacity. In Tripoli, the country’s second-largest city, the tallest man-made structure is the municipal landfill, which also sits directly on the Mediterranean.  

“Basically there’s no hazardous waste management in Lebanon – most of the waste is mixed with municipal waste and it ends up in open dumps and landfills, and only a minor quantity is being exported to be treated abroad,” said Samar Khalil, a waste management expert and a member of the Waste Management Coalition, a group of civil society organisations that works on local waste management issues.  

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More than 90 percent of Lebanon’s wastewater goes untreated into rivers, the ground or the sea, and that, along with municipal waste, is mixed with runoff from factories, hospitals and farms. Some of the sewage outfalls into the Mediterranean are large enough to be readily visible on Google Maps

As the Lebanese population of about six million has grown to include around a million refugees from the Syrian civil war, the hundreds of thousands that live in camps are also often using local waterways as open sewers. 

The problem has led to the effective death of the country’s longest river, the Litani. 

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A woman walks past piles of rubbish with rat poison scattered across in Beirut in 2015. Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images

“Many if not most of the villages, tented settlements of the Syrian refugees and factories and slaughterhouses dump their wastewater untreated into the river directly,” said Abbas Baalbaki, an environmental researcher specialising in wastewater management and a member of Green Southerners, an environmental NGO that focuses on southern Lebanon. “You can even see that the water in certain parts of the river is completely black and if you throw anything in the water methane gas will start will start going out, which shows serious anaerobic conditions which are not suitable for aquatic and aqua-terrestrial life.” 

If it ever gets paid, Combi Lift has been contracted to clear other sites in Lebanon of hazardous materials. In March, the company announced it had found improperly stored radioactive material at a coastal oil installation south of Beirut. 

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The head of the facility told a local TV station that the material in question was less than 16 kilograms of depleted uranium salts that had been there since the 1950s, but did not elaborate further. The Lebanese Atomic Energy Agency, which took possession of the material, did not immediately respond to a request for more information.

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Karina Sukkar, a Lebanese architect and designer, stands the balcony of her damaged apartment overlooking the ravaged port of Lebanon's capital Beirut. Photo: PATRICK BAZ/AFP via Getty Images

This isn’t necessarily a one-off occurrence. A few years ago, a canister that was marked “radioactive material” washed up on one of Beirut’s beaches, along with the other trash the sea disgorges after almost every storm. 

In the last year, Lebanon has been gripped by an economic crisis that has brought on hyperinflation and a 90 percent devaluation of the local currency. The money to fix any of these problems is unlikely to be spent soon. 

“As long as the systems and the policies are not revised, and as long as you have the economy this way, improper management and dumping will continue,” Baalbaki said.