The 'environmental disaster' Lebanon can't afford to fix

The Zouk Mikael power station is choking the region around it with pollution, but sky-high energy demands and political crises are blocking solutions.

al-monitor A general view of the Zouk power station is seen in the Zouk area, north of Beirut, Dec. 6, 2008. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir.

Topics covered

pollution, lebanon government, lebanon crisis, lebanese society, electricity, electricite du liban, electrical outages, cancer

Jun 18, 2015

ZOUK MIKAEL, Lebanon — In a small garage in Zouk Mikael, a coastal town 20 kilometers (14 miles) north of Beirut, Hamid Dabkey looks at the decrepit exterior of the town’s power station, just 200 meters (650 feet) away. Dabkey’s garage is located on the ground floor of a six-story residential complex. A number of other apartment blocks line the road. Grey plumes of smoke rise from the plant’s two red and white chimneys, snaking between buildings, pushed inland by a breeze coming off the Mediterranean.

“Around once a month, the smoke becomes very thick,” Dabkey told Al-Monitor, “and there is this loud noise like an airplane. It sounds like the entire place is breaking.”

Numerous studies — the most recent conducted last year by Notre Dame University in Jounieh — have found that the combustion of fuel oil to generate electricity in the Zouk Mikael hydroelectric plant produces toxic emissions, including sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, that contribute to high rates of lung cancer and pulmonary and cardiovascular disease among local residents, in addition to asthma and skin irritations. Dabkey himself has asthma.

One 2010 survey, a result of 1,000 interviews conducted with Zouk residents, found that 33.1% of interviewees living within 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) of the plant recorded an incidence of lung cancer within the family, compared to 12.8% among families living 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) away.

In April, during a protest held outside the plant, Zouk Mikael’s mayor, Nouhad Naufal, called the situation a “national environmental disaster” and asked the government to take action to either renovate the plant or disconnect it from the grid.

In its defense, Electricite du Liban (EDL), Lebanon’s state-owned electricity provider, claims that since 2012, emissions at the Zouk plant have been reduced by 80% after a filtration system was installed in the facility’s smoke stacks.

But local residents dispute this claim and remain doubtful that action will be taken at a time when the state’s executive power has been by a presidential vacuum now entering its second year. The absence of a head of state has already caused disruptions in Lebanon’s energy sector, including ongoing delays in the signing of key decrees necessary to kickstart Lebanon’s offshore oil and gas industry.

Chaker Noon, an architect and head of the Lebanese environmental nongovernmental organization Baldati, told Al-Monitor that while the Zouk plant poses a hazard to the health of local residents, taking it off the grid is not an option.

Lebanon currently imports over 90% of its energy needs, while demand in the country has increased due to the influx of over 1 million Syrian refugees since 2011. Currently, EDL has a nominal supply capacity of 2,100 megawatts, with around 400 MW supplied by the Zouk plant. Lebanon’s total electricity demand stands at around 2,500 MW. EDL’s shortfalls are made up for by backup generators, which, like the Zouk plant, emit carcinogens.

Just up the road from Dabkey’s garage, Maria Iskander rents an apartment in a holiday suite complex built by her uncle in the 1960s. She fondly recalls her childhood spent in the area.

“Traveling from Beirut, the road through Dbayeh was lined with orange groves. I don’t remember the power plant being a big issue back then,” Iskander told Al-Monitor. “Now, if you hang your laundry outside, it accumulates this oily residue. I shudder to think this is going into people’s lungs.”

Following the April demonstrations, Lebanon’s Energy and Water Minister Arthur Nazarian stated that his ministry is open to “all scientific proposals” regarding a solution to the Zouk Mikael dilemma.

But Naufal first voiced concern over the plant’s emissions in 1983. Over the years, he has seen proposals to alleviate the environmental and health costs of the facility fail to be implemented. These proposals have included initiatives to move the plant away from urban areas, renovate its infrastructure, introduce carbon-capturing techniques to reduce emissions and switch the plant’s fuel supply from diesel oil to the cleaner but more costly natural gas.

“This isn’t a new problem, but now we see the cost the plant is exacting,” Naufal told Al-Monitor. “We still see the same smoke coming out of the plant’s chimneys. Last year alone, Notre Dame [Hospital] recorded 83 new cases of lung cancer and 1,300 new cases of asthma,” he added, casting doubt over EDL’s claims to have reduced emissions at the Zouk plant by 80%.

Defending EDL, the company’s General Director Kamal Hayek has stressed that when constructed in 1958, the facility was built on land designated an industrial zone and questioned why residential units have encroached on the area.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Zouk Mikael was a small agricultural town known for its beach resorts and fertile coastal land. However, its connection to the national electricity grid and the construction of a road network linking the area with Beirut and Tripoli lead to urbanization that increased during Lebanon’s civil war when people fleeing Beirut and northern Lebanon found refuge in Zouk and the nearby Adonis area. The construction of residential blocks went largely unregulated.

“This blame game doesn’t achieve anything,” Noon said, criticizing Hayek’s remarks. “Zouk shows the state’s failure to manage long-term plans in both the electricity and urban planning sectors." He added that Lebanon currently stands to fall short of a 2009 commitment to produce 12% of its energy through renewable sources by 2020.

For Ali Darwish, head of the Green Line Association in Lebanon, the Zouk plant represents the failure of the Lebanese state to provide a safe and efficient electricity supply to its citizens.

“When talking about Zouk, we also need to take into account diesel generators, which account for around 40% of electricity generation in Lebanon. This industry goes completely unregulated,” Darwish told Al-Monitor.

Alan Shihadeh, a mechanical engineering professor at the American University of Beirut, concurs. Shihadeh’s research shows that 93% of Beirut’s inhabitants are exposed to carcinogens emitted by diesel generators every day.

“Ideally, the power plant should be shut down, the space turned into a green zone and another power plant built in an area where few people will breathe its emissions,” Shihadeh told Al-Monitor. “That said, in the short term, we need to fix the problem of electricity outages in Lebanon. The widespread use of diesel generators has led to much higher exposure to carcinogenic fumes than would be the case if our national electric production were reliable. It is scandalous that Lebanon does not have a decent power system. It is literally killing us.”

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