ZOUK MIKAEL, Lebanon: Every morning, when Elias al-Sheikh goes on his balcony, he finds a film of black soot on the railing. He lives just 1 kilometer away from the Zouk Mikael power plant, north of Beirut. For Sheikh and other locals, the black clouds rising from the plant smoke stacks are a daily occurrence, as is the film of black that settles on their homes, and in their lungs. “I’ve had asthma since I moved here 20 years ago, I never had it before coming here,” said Sheikh, who was among hundreds of protesters who came from Zouk Mikayel, and surrounding towns, to protest near the Zouk power plant over the weekend, calling for a halt to plant expansion and a solution to the toxic pollution that had led to a spate of respiratory diseases and cancer.
Residents say that for years they’ve appealedto the government to take action, but their call for help has been met with silence.
“We have had enough. For 20 years, we have been asking [the government] to find a solution,” Sheikh said, pointing to the nearby smoke stacks of the power plant, “but they don’t care about us.”
The municipalities of Zouk Mikael and surrounding districts of Kesrouan have experienced disproportionately high rates of cancer and a slew of respiratory conditions, among them asthma and emphysema. Disease incidence has grown progressively worse over the past two decades.
Municipal leaders have proposed solutions to the Zouk plant’s authority, the government-owned Electricite du Liban, on ways to treat and properly filter the fuel oil pollution, which is rich with harmful sulfur dioxide, but as rates of diseases continue to climb promises and proposals remain nothing but “ink on paper,” according to Nouhad Naufal, president of Zouk Mikayel Municipality.
“Since 1983, the union of municipalities in Kesrouan has worked within the legal framework and strived to eradicate the [deadly pollution] from this plant,” Naufal told a packed crowd of politicians, community leaders and members of the media at the Zouk Mikael municipality headquarters, an hour before the protest Saturday. Attendees included Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel, Change and Reform bloc MP Neamatallah Abi Nasr and Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi.
In tracking the effects of the pollution, he said that the municipalities “began to find a growing number of cancer patients in the area, resulting from the escalation and proliferation of toxins from the Zouk plant. [Health issues] are no longer confined to skin and respiratory diseases.”
Naufal declared the pollution a “national environmental emergency” and outlined a set of demands, among them “the immediate monitoring of fuel imports, according to a 1996 government decision that would cap the sulfur ratio at 1 percent.”
In the interest of curbing residents’ health problems, Naufal called for halting plans to expand the plant, set to receive at least 10 more power stations.
He advocated for a shift from reliance on fuel oil to natural gas, and demanded that the plant “implement proper filtration for exhaust.”
Approximately 350,000 residents live in the areas surrounding the Zouk Mikael plant. According to a 2014 study, shared as part of the news conference, conducted in collaboration with Our Lady of Lebanon hospital in nearby Jounieh, the combustion of fuel oil for electricity generation produces a range of toxins harmful to human health and the environment, among them, sulfur dioxide.
The study linked pollutants, released as small particles, to the maladies that plague Zouk residents, such as asthma, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Those with asthma suffered three times the attacks when sulfur dioxide was present in the air at high concentrations.
The study recommended the use of higher quality, less toxic fuel, and that the plant explore other sources of energy, such as water or solar power, instead of relying on fuel oil.
Local resident Anis Rbeiz, was among the crowd at the high-spirited protest. He said that the area’s health problems were “an old story.” When he moved to the area in the 1980s, he began suffering from allergies, which have only become more severe as time has passed.
Like so many who stopped to speak to The Daily Star, he said his neighbors suffered from similar respiratory health issues. “It’s time the officials find a solution,” he added.
A study on the impact of the Zouk power plant emissions, conducted in 2010, surveyed residents near the plant to gauge incidence rates of asthma, emphysema and lung cancer. It compared the survey results of 500 homes within 3 km of the plant to a control group of 500 homes further away, located 15 to 20 km from the plant. Per the survey results, those who lived within 3 km of the Zouk plant experienced significantly higher rates of asthma, emphysema and lung cancer.
For example, 33 percent of those living close to the plant answered positively when asked if someone in the household had died from lung cancer. By contrast, 12.8 percent of respondents answered positively to the same statement in the area 15 to 20 km away.
Additionally, the study explored four possible solutions, among them, “carbon separation, rehabilitation [of the Zouk plant], natural gas and solar water heating technology.” Yet investing in one or more of these solutions would require the government to recognize their benefits, over the long term, and be willing to devote resources toward emissions monitoring.
One powerful incentive for the government’s reliance on fuel oil has been its low cost, in the short run, as it is cheaper than cleaner fuel alternatives. However, researchers and Zouk locals alike say that reliance on fuel oil comes with immense long-term costs in terms of health are expenses to the state, and the Lebanese public, due to the toxic effects of fuel oil.
Those living near the plant say that their health won’t wait for the government’s inaction, and that solutions are long overdue. Stopping to share his thoughts before the protest, Zouk native George Trad said, “The first step is to install filters, to stop the pollution.”
He saw his mother endure pancreatic cancer and liver cancer for two years. Asthma and respiratory diseases are common among his friends and neighbors, Trad said, and the exhaust that looms over the lives of residents now also threatens future generations.
“It’s about our health, but it’s also about our children. We are trying to save our children.”