BEIRUT: Residents of the Metn town of Mansourieh struck back Thursday at the government’s claim that a controversial plan to install high voltage lines in the area is needed to tackle the country’s electricity crisis, calling it a distortion of the truth.
Despite years of protest by Metn residents over health concerns associated with electromagnetic fields from high voltage wires, the Cabinet agreed Wednesday to move ahead with a project to connect a power plant in Mkalles to one in Bsalim, allowing residents to sell their homes to the government if they wish to leave the area.
But a day after the offer was made, residents and activists, who have argued that the lines should be placed underground – a suggestion the government maintains is too costly – said the government plan was untenable.
“No one is willing to let go of his or her house in Metn and the government does not have the right to force them out of their homes,” said Raja Njeim, a civil society activist involved in the campaign against the project.
In an interview with The Daily Star, Njeim accused the government and Energy and Water Minister Jibran Bassil of making “proposals that will definitely be rejected.”
Bassil, who has recently come under attack from Lebanese across the country over severe power outages, has insisted the project was carefully studied and would not pose a risk to residents who live in the path of lines.
The government designated the Finance Ministry Wednesday to set price estimates for the apartments in Mansourieh that the government is willing to purchase.
“I understand the government wants to buy the homes and immediately sell them to other people ... but Parliament won’t approve such a measure,” said Njeim. “Now in this case [the government] will avoid taking the proposal to Parliament and simply allocate the money needed for purchasing homes the way they arranged the money for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.”
In November, Prime Minister Najib Mikati unilaterally announced that Lebanon would pay its dues to the international court. Some two weeks later, the Association of Banks in Lebanon said that it donated $32 million to the Higher Relief Committee to cover the payment to STL.
“But even this maneuver will fail ... because they think that health threats exist only on a small portion of land,” Njeim said.
“This government is trying to fool everyone in Lebanon ... they have made this proposal to try to portray the residents of Metn as politicized and against policies that would improve the country’s power problems,” he added.
According to Njeim, the government would be unable to carry out the proposal since there are several residential areas in the country that lie in the path of high voltage electrical lines.
“Can they pay all Lebanese to leave their homes so that they can implement their project?” he asked.
Njeim also argued that the years of protest are paying off and the government will be forced to make more concessions. “There is no solution to this problem until the government agrees with our proposal [underground system],” he said.
Residents of Mansourieh, who have repeatedly thwarted attempts by the personnel of the Energy Ministry and contractors to install the cables needed for the high voltage lines,expressed surprise at the latest offer but rejected any potential agreement to sell their homes.
“Do they want us to go to the streets again? How can they possibly believe that we would give up on our homes?” said Carole Ibrahim.
“If they have money to pay all residents to leave their homes in the area, then why not adopt the underground project?” asked Ibrahim, whose apartment is five meters from high voltage electrical lines.
According to Ibrahim, the implementation of the government’s latest proposal is practically impossible. “Many of the residents have bank loans ... will the government pay the banks to get the homes and then pay the residents again to buy new ones?”
Echoing other residents, Ibrahim said that the government is evading the real problem of severe power outages across the country. “The problem is not Mansourieh or Metn. The problem is nationwide and is due to the absence of enough power sources,” Ibrahim added.
Maurice Asmar, a mukhtar in the neighboring town of Ain Saade, agreed with Njeim and Ibrahim’s assessment.
“There is a school with 2,000 students, there are churches ... they cannot buy everything,” Asmar said.
“Again, the government decision was not based on any study ... in the past they thought only 10 apartments were threatened by electromagnetic fields. Now they believe there are more than 58 apartments,” added Asmar who argues that there are more than 2,000 apartments whose residents are vulnerable to health risks from high voltage lines.
While the government struggles to calm public rage against electricity outages, Njeim said the government’s proposal for Mansourieh would only lead to another “Fassouh tragedy,” referring to a residential building in Ashrafieh that collapsed earlier this month, killing 27 people.
“Just like the outdated laws that allowed Fassouh building’s owner to build more floors ... the government wants to continue with the high voltage project despite its health threats,” he said. “Let them all unanimously agree to be personally responsible for any harm inflicted on any of the residents, then and only then we might agree to the project.”