Lebanon News

Minister vows garbage fix Thursday

Runners jog past a pile of garbage in Beirut, Wednesday, July 22, 2015. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Trash piled up in Beirut and Mount Lebanon for a fourth consecutive day as Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk promised a solution to the crisis would be found at Thursday’s Cabinet session.

Garbage nearly blocked roads in areas of the capital, and municipalities appeared helpless as the piles of waste grew.

“I will set a condition tomorrow on ministers that the Cabinet session should not end before a solution is reached,” Machnouk told MTV television Wednesday evening.

There are fears that the government may not act, as it is currently deadlocked in a dispute over security appointments. The Free Patriotic Movement has insisted on discussing security appointments and the government’s decision-making mechanism before any other issues.

However, the majority of ministers back Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who argues that the appointment of an Army commander can wait until September.

FPM MP Alain Aoun said the party’s opponents were using the garbage crisis “to pressure us, so that the items that we want [to discuss] are not discussed.”

Speaking to a television station, Aoun said the government had already taken the steps required to solve the problem. “The decisions need only to be implemented.”

The garbage crisis began when the Naameh dump closed last Friday without a substitute being secured. Two days later, Sukleen, whose contract also expired Friday, stopped collecting garbage in Beirut and Mount Lebanon. The firm said it had run out of storage space at its facilities.

Under a 1997 contract, Sukleen’s responsibilities include collecting waste and treating it at plants in Karantina and Amrousieh, while the Sukomi Company was contracted to manage the then-newly established Naameh landfill. Both companies fall under the umbrella of holding group Averda. Responding to the FPM, Machnouk said the government had agreed to distribute the garbage from Beirut and its suburbs among several landfills outside the city, but must still decide which ones.

The Beirut municipality has suggested temporarily dumping the waste outside Beirut, possibly in Akkar, but the proposal has already been met with stiff resistance from local officials.

Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad said he coordinated the proposal with Machnouk, and hoped it would receive the Cabinet’s endorsement.

“We asked the government to allow Sukleen to resume its work in terms of collecting trash and transporting it for treatment in plants,” Hamad told The Daily Star.

“Sukleen would then hand over the residual material to a commercial company with which we signed a contract and which would dump it outside Beirut in areas already used as landfills.”

Hamad said one possible landfill was in Srar, in north Lebanon’s Akkar. “If the government does not act tomorrow, it will be a great [crime] against Beirut and Lebanon,” he added. However, his suggestion was met with strong opposition by officials from Akkar.

Akkar MP Khaled Zahraman, speaking on behalf of Akkar MPs and residents, expressed his opposition to the plan, saying people of the northern district would not stand idly by if it were approved.

Speaking to the Voice of Lebanon radio station, Zahraman warned against provoking residents of Akkar.

“The state remembers this area only when it comes to raising revenues [from it] rather than spending money [on it],” Zahraman said. “Let them make this proposal after they implement development projects in our area.”

Hamad responded, “Okay. Then we will ask everyone visiting Beirut to take his garbage with him to his village at the end of the day.”

He said one-third of Lebanon’s population lived in Beirut, many of whom relocated there from outside the capital.

“Then we hear some saying that Beirut’s garbage should stay in Beirut. Where shall we put the garbage? In Sassine Square? Ras Beirut? Or Tariq al-Jadideh?”

The trash crisis was also the subject of a meeting between Salam and Beirut MPs at the Grand Serail.

The head of Sukleen’s parent company fired back at the heavy criticism the outfit has received over the issue, pointing the finger instead at the Lebanese government. “It is the government’s responsibility, according to our contract, to provide a landfill for Beirut’s waste,” Maysarah Sukkar told the Arab Economic News website Wednesday. “This isn’t Sukleen’s responsibility.”

Sukleen has been criticized by a number of officials for halting garbage collection following the closure of the Naameh landfill.

Sukkar said Sukleen was willing to transport garbage to any dumping ground officials agreed on.

“Sukleen will continue work for a week, a month, or more, until the current crisis is solved.”

He also responded to critics accusing the company of draining the state’s finances, contending that his company charged the “cheapest fees when compared with global prices.”

Earlier Wednesday, Kataeb Party leader Sami Gemayel accused Sukleen of stealing public money and blackmailing the country to renew its contract.

“There is a company [Sukleen] that has been making profits in the hundreds of millions of dollars, for 20 years more or less, at the expense of the Lebanese and the municipalities, and so at the expense of the daily livelihoods of all citizens,” Gemayel said at a news conference.

“With the utmost rudeness, after making these huge amounts of money, this company stopped collecting garbage the moment its contract ended.”

Gemayel said the price that the government currently pays the company for each ton of garbage collected ($140) was the double the maximum paid by any other country.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 23, 2015, on page 1.

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