BEIRUT: At first glance, the old harbor nestled between Burj Hammoud and Jdeideh looks like a postcard from bygone years. The blue and white fishing boats swinging on the water with their billowing red Lebanese maritime flags stand out against a backdrop of hills and sea. At a closer distance, however, the pungent odor of decomposing garbage and the loud, humming noise of trucks are a prelude to a very different reality.
The hill silhouetted against the sea is the Burj Hammoud dump, operated by Khoury Contracting and commissioned by the government-affiliated Council for Development and Reconstruction.
Fishermen recently raised alarm of the increasing levels of sea pollution, while the company has denied any responsibility.
Fifty-year-old Ali Toufayli has been at sea for over 30 years, but he never lived through a season like the one he is currently witnessing. “There is no more fish; we searched everywhere. Wherever you look, you will not find any fish. The sea is full of garbage,” Toufayli told The Daily Star.
According to the fisherman, the past few months have been catastrophic for the business. “Usually we get 60 to 70 fish per day and now we only get six or seven,” he said.
Every boat is a source of revenue for up to 10 families, but this year they are all struggling to make ends meet.
Emile Eid, 50, said he did not exaggerate in saying that “the lives of fishermen are ruined.” Eid explained the high season for fishing is the summer, but this year the over 100 fishermen have mainly caught trash in their nets.
“People think fishermen are poor but it’s not at all like that. The sea is very generous to people who know how to work,” he told The Daily Star. “But this season has been the worst one yet. We never experienced something like this before.”
Eid said that Dani Khoury – the chairman of Khoury Contracting – gave LL5 million ($3,300) in compensation, an amount that was shared among the hundreds of fishermen working at the port. “What are LL50,000 [per person]?” Eid said.
Fishermen have asked for compensation from the government, but so far they have not received any aid.
According to state media, Environment Minister Tarek Khatib said last month that he had informed the CDR of the environmental transgressions but that the problem fell beyond the ministry’s control.
The Environment Ministry and the Health Ministry were contacted by The Daily Star for the purpose of this article, but have failed to provide clarification on the issue for over a week.
Toufic Kazmouz, project manager at Khoury Contracting, invited The Daily Star to visit the dump. He explained the project extends on the area of Burj Hammoud’s previous landfill, which was an informal dumping site during the Civil War and was later transformed into an official landfill. The site was closed in 1997 and the waste material has been buried there ever since.
Khoury Contracting was tasked in August 2016 with removing the old waste to make space for a new operational area located on two sites – in Burj Hammoud to the south of the port and Jdeideh to the north.
The operation is carried out through a procedure Kazmouz refers to as “backfilling.” While the term more commonly refers to the filling of the holes generated by mining, in Lebanon it has become associated with the process of creating new lucrative plots of land on the seafront, also known as “land reclamation.”
As Kazmouz explained, the old waste is sorted so that the waste material is separated from its soil component. It is then tested and, if found nonhazardous, used for backfilling.
“All material is tested in the laboratory of IRI [Industrial Research Institute],” Kazmouz said. “The criteria regulating this material are stated in our contract.”
However, The Daily Star was able to spot pieces of plastic and tires among the old waste that was being discharged in the sea by the company’s trucks. Kazmouz admitted the presence of some nonhazardous material but argued the quantity was minimal.
He also later conceded that the completion of a breakwater barrier – which limits the flow of material into the open sea – was scheduled for September, while that the company had begun backfilling in February.
Kazmouz blamed the delay on the fact that petroleum companies had to relocate their pipelines due to a conflict between their route and the landfill.
“This is not a 100 percent perfect solution,” Kazmouz said in reference to the ongoing backfilling operations. “It’s maybe 85 percent correct, but the alternative is having the waste back on the streets.”
Paul Abi Rached, president of the Lebanon Eco Movement, expressed a different view on the matter. “They have awakened the sleeping monster,” he said, referring to the old dump site, which environmental activists have long claimed contains radioactive waste.
Several lawyers representing the civil society group the People Want to Fix the System, filed lawsuits to close the Burj Hammoud and Costa Brava dumps. Following an explosion of a barrel in April, which they suspect was one of the many toxic waste barrels sent to Lebanon during the Civil War, they were not allowed by the municipality to access the old Burj Hammoud dump.
“What is happening in Burj Hammoud is unbelievable. No sorting is being done to the old waste, which is being thrown directly into the sea.” Abi Rached told The Daily Star.
A video published by the Lebanon Eco Movement showed the fishermen pulling in nets filled with trash. “The marine currents push the waste from south to north, so now also Jounieh and Byblos are polluted because of Burj Hammoud,” Abi Rached said.
Images taken by the fishermen on their phones show the sea coated by white foam, due to what they claim is the pollution generated by the backfilling. Kazmouz dismissed such allegations and said the area is being polluted mainly by the sewage flowing in from the adjacent rivers.
However Eid, the fisherman, was not satisfied by the explanation. “After the war ended, the dumping of garbage in the sea became more infrequent and the sea started becoming cleaner and cleaner. We reached a point where the sea had become very clean,” he said. “Then came the landfill and they started throwing garbage in the sea [again]. But mind you, we are talking about garbage not sewage. The sewage has always reached the sea in Lebanon.”