Lebanon News

Officials warm to garbage plan, residents still cold

Chehayeb speaks with Machnouk during the conference in Beirut. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Local officials agreed to a government proposal to briefly reopen Naameh landfill Friday, illuminating a path out of the trash crisis, but opposition from residents threatens to impede the plan. Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb and Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk have been canvassing officials across the country to shore up support for the plan, which would divert Beirut and Mount Lebanon trash to Naameh, Burj Hammoud, Akkar the Bekaa Valley and Sidon.

The day’s developments indicated local officials are warming up to the Cabinet plan, but support from civil society remains distant.

The Union of Municipalities of the Mount Lebanon districts of Chahhar and al-Gharb al-Ala announced they would accept to briefly reopen Naameh.

“We will give Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb’s trash plan a chance,” the municipal mayors said at a news conference. “We will open the Naameh landfill for seven days after [we receive] confirmation that the other sites proposed in [Chehayeb’s] plan would also open.”

However, residents in the Chouf and Aley immediately opposed the mayors’ concession.

“Seven days is not seven days – it is two months. They want to dump all the trash that has gathered in Beirut [and Mount Lebanon] in one load at Naameh. It is as though the landfill never closed on July 17,” said Imad al-Qadi, a lawyer and an activist with Close Naameh Landfill campaign, on MTV.

“There is a popular refusal to reopen Naameh.”

Authorities retired the overused landfill in July as activists blocked the gates to force the government to abide by its own deadline.

Chehayeb’s plan, though, would have the grounds open for seven days to take the trash that has accumulated in the Mount Lebanon region over the summer. The transfer will be accompanied with the expansion of the site’s power generation facility to provide area residents with six megawatts of electricity, free.

Aley residents Friday evening gathered with activists from the popular You Stink campaign at the landfill’s entrance to repeat their rebuke. They suggested processing the heaps of trash around the capital at waste facilities instead.

“Moving garbage to the temporary waste sorting facilities in several districts is a cheaper option, especially considering that $25 million would be paid as compensation for landfilling the waste in [Naameh],” a spokesperson said.

A similar scene unfolded at the BIEL exhibition Center in Downtown Beirut, where Chehayeb and Machnouk met with Akkar stakeholders about the proposal to bury Beirut trash in a sanitary landfill in Srar. Officials seemed to go along with it, but residents and mukhtars in attendance were clearly hesitant.

“I appreciate the responsibility that the ministers have demonstrated today. But who will guarantee the terms of this plan when you leave?” said Nadine Saba, a Akkar resident.

Machnouk said the United Nations has agreed to oversee the project, but Saba said she was not satisfied with the answer.

“The U.N. does oversight, but not arbitration. What will happen if we have a disagreement? Where do we go? Who do we speak with?” she asked, to applause from the audience.

Saba said she welcomed the proposal to transform the Srar dump into a landfill but opposed burying Beirut’s trash there.

Chehayeb acknowledged there was a “crisis of trust” that undermined the government’s credibility and imperiled the plan.

But, he said, there is no alternative. “This [plan] is the outcome of a technical, scientific study,” Chehayeb told The Daily Star after the public hearing.

“I have consulted with environmentalists, municipalities, political parties. It depends on whether they want it to work or not. We have no other choice, we have to do it. The trash is in the street.”

Asked whether journalists would be able to oversee the plan’s application over its 18-month span, Chehayeb said, “We are going to report weekly. Civil society is involved, of course.”

About 100 people attended the hearing, which lasted for two and a half hours as the ministers answered the audience’s questions.

The civil movement is persevering in its campaign to hold officials accountable for mismanaging the country’s waste.

But a lawsuit raised against Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk, who was originally responsible for the waste file until he gave up his responsibilities in August, ran aground Friday.

State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud ruled that trying the minister for “causing the proliferation of diseases” through his failure to find a solution to the garbage crisis was not within his prerogatives, according to a court document obtained by The Daily Star Friday.

And the interior minister also rebuked calls for his resignation. “I want to know who is calling for my resignation. Is it the You Stink movement or We Want Accountability or a third or a fourth party or protesters [in general]?” Nouhad Machnouk said in comments published Friday by local newspaper As-Safir. “I will answer their demand based on the [response].”

The interior minister admitted that “some errors” had occurred during Wednesday’s protest in Downtown Beirut that coincided with the second round of national dialogue.

“Yes, very limited mistakes happened and I have asked the [police] chief to conduct an investigation and, accordingly, appropriate measures will be taken,” Machnouk said.

A coalition of activist groups organizing the recent street protests in Lebanon called in a joint statement Thursday for a massive march Sunday, demanding Machnouk’s resignation.

The groups, which include You Stink and We Want Accountability among many others, said Machnouk should be sacked from Cabinet for allowing the use of excessive force by police against protesters.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 19, 2015, on page 1.

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