Is solid waste management in Lebanon going to be another cellular phone saga? This question is haunting environmentalists. They fear the break-up of the government’s contracts with Sukleen and Sukomi the two firms in charge of Beirut and Mount Lebanon’s solid waste since the mid-1990s will become another tug of war among politicians eager to have a slice of the waste-management pie.
The government earlier this month gave Sukleen and Sukomi, part of the Averda group owned by investor Maysara Sukkar, six months to terminate their operations. The group will hand over sweeping and collection of trash to municipalities while leaving the more complicated composting and landfill operations to the government.
The government had signed three contracts with Averda: one five-year contract with Sukleen in 1995 for collection and sweeping, and two 10-year contracts with Sukomi in 1998 for composting and landfilling.
In the next six months, the Council of Development and Reconstruction (CDR) will have to draw up tender specifications and open a bid for companies interested in running Lebanon’s composting and landfill operations.
Both Averda and CDR did not want to comment on the contract’s termination, and their silence is troubling.
How much will the government pay in compensation to Sukomi, whose contracts were supposed to end in 2008, unlike Sukleen’s contract which expired at end of 2000 and was renewed?
Does the Averda group owe the government any money for not fulfilling some of the contracts it signed with CDR, as some environmentalists and politicians contend?
What kind of a company will be hired to manage composting and landfilling, and what sort of a consulting firm will draw up the tender specifications?
“Breaking up the contract has left more questions than answers to the solid-waste problem,” said Habib Maalouf, head of the Lebanese Committee for Environment and Development.
He is lobbying for an investigation into the Averda group’s breach of the contract, which he said has cost the government millions of dollars.
Lebanon’s solid-waste management strategy was only drafted in 1997 after the residents of Bourj Hammoud blocked the road to the nearby dump and others burned down an incinerator spewing out foul-smelling gases. Their act brought about the emergency plan that led to CDR hiring Averda to handle the capital’s household solid waste through composting at Coral, and landfilling at the newly established Naameh landfill.
“The whole solid-waste problem we have today is directly linked to the firm’s breach of one important clause the expansion of the Coral composting plant,” said Maalouf.
The group built a composting plant that treated 300 tons of organic waste per day, but it was supposed to treat 850 tons per day according to the original contract, environmentalists say.
Instead, the group dumped excess organic waste in the Naameh landfill, which has reached saturation point in three years, although it was supposed to have a lifetime of 10 years.
The Naameh landfill, the only one serving the 2 million people of Greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon, had an originally capacity of 2 million tons which has doubled to 4 million. The dump is currently being vertically expanded although it is scheduled to be closed at the end of the year.
“Who is going to pay for the treatment of the landfill, which had a dangerous mix of organic waste that shouldn’t be there?” asks environmental activist Mounir Bou Ghanem.
“Will the government be able to find an alternative site in six months, when it takes a minimum of eight months to a year to prepare a site for landfilling?”
Treating Naameh landfill may be thrown on the backburner as the government searches for cash to pay its dues to Averda.
“The main issue is Averda’s assets and whether the government owns any of its equipment,” said Bou Ghanem.
MP Akram Chehayeb, head of Parliament’s environment committee, said the government may have to pay Averda up to $200 million in compensation.
“The government owes the two firms around $120 million in arrears,” said Chehayeb, who was environment minister when the contract with Averda was drafted.
“It will also have to pay an estimated $20 million for Averda’s assets and some $60 million for Sukomi in compensation for breaking up the contract.”
The Interior Ministry had said in a report to the government in 2000 that Sukomi would have to be paid as much as $72 million in compensation in case the contract was broken.
Many environmentalists say the exclusion of the Environment Ministry from the decision-making process is fudging the solid-waste issue.
“We need to know who is the environment minister is it CDR, the Interior Ministry or the Environment Ministry?” Bou Ghanem said.
Environment Minister Fares Boueiz objected to the termination of the contract. But has he ever seen it? “There is a scandal in the contract of solid waste,” said Ghanem. “I wonder if anyone in the Environment Ministry has seen the contract.”
Environmentalists fear that the tender specifications to be prepared by the CDR in six months if they are finished on time will repeat the “scandalous” contracts of the 1990s.
“The CDR says it will hire a consultant according to mutual agreement to draft the tender specifications for the new contract,” Maalouf said. “I fear this means the tender will be drafted to suit certain people,” he added.