5 - 11 September 2002
Issue No. 602
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Coast of the fliesA research centre's report on Egypt's first landfill has added to the controversy surrounding the location of the project near a North Coast beach resort. Gihan Shahine samples the debate
Last week, Cairo University's Environmental Research Centre (ERC) issued a report criticising the North Coast landfill where 3,000 tonnes of household garbage from Alexandria are dumped daily, calling it an "environmental hazard". The report called for "the immediate relocation" of the landfill, currently situated a mere 250 metres from the North Coast resort of Zomorroda.
ERC's report recommended that the landfill should be relocated to another site at least three kilometres from housing areas. Egypt's environment protection law requires that landfills be sited at least 1,500-metres away from such areas. Until the landfill is moved, the document recommends, a comprehensive environmental monitoring system should be established to assess potential dangers.
The report, which was commissioned by the administrators of Zomorroda on 4 August, is the culmination of on-sight studies by a committee of experts. The committee monitored biogas emissions, analysed garbage leachate, examined waste management practices and assessed the environmental impact of the landfill on its surroundings.
The landfill was created six months ago as part of the 15- year contract that the Alexandria Governorate signed with Onyx, a French company, to collect and treat one million tonnes of the city's waste annually at a cost of LE72 million a year. The Alexandria Governorate selected the location for the project based on a technical study of the site.
As news of the creation of the landfill on the northern coastline spread among the owners of holiday homes in the area two months ago, a public outcry erupted. Holiday- makers filed complaints at the nearby police station, blaming the landfill for the flies and the foul smell that hit the area. The press, in turn, sounded off on the "environmental crisis", calling for the relocation of the landfill away from "Egypt's most beautiful coast".
In response to public fury, officials formed a committee of independent university professors to investigate the problem, following on-site visits by Prime Minister Atef Ebeid, Minister of Environment Mamdouh Riyad and Alexandria Governor Abdel-Salam El-Mahgoub. Meanwhile, measures were taken to curb the spread of the terrible smell emanating from the site. The findings of the government-commissioned study were recently announced, confirming statements by officials that the landfill was "environment-friendly". However, the study was not released to the press.
Contrary to official statements, however, last week's report by the ERC contended that the landfill is the source of the fly population and the offensive smells which pervaded the area over the past few months. The landfill, the ERC's report continued, caused Bedouin residing nearby stomach and chest ailments, besides wreaking havoc on cultivated fig trees. The report also disputed claims by officials that the malodours and clouds of insects were the result of the resorts' open dumps and faulty sewage systems, as well as nearby fig cultivation. The effects of all of these factors, the report contended, were intensified by the hot weather. On a precautionary note, the ERC's study warned against the use of the area's subterranean water, suggesting that it might have been contaminated by garbage leachate.
For their part, Alexandria Governorate officials insist that they chose the current location for the landfill because it was the "most suitable". They explain that although the depth of the former quarry where the landfill is sited is 25 metres, it remains 10 metres above the water table, and prevailing winds are blowing away from the resorts. Furthermore, it is easily accessible from Alexandria. Besides, officials maintain, desert lands either have high levels of subterranean water, or do not belong to the governorate.
Management at Onyx, which runs 150 landfills worldwide, however remains undaunted by ERC's findings. "The garbage is dumped and compacted in impermeable cells, which lie 10 metres above the water table," Thierry Chazelle, waste treatment director at Onyx, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The leachate lagoon has been emptied and examined and no traces of leakage were found."
Chazelle's statement is corroborated by the scientific findings of Ahmed Hossam, professor of environmental engineering at Alexandria University's Higher Institute for Public Health. Hossam was commissioned by the Ministry of Environment to periodically conduct bacteriological and chemical analyses on samples of the subterranean water near the site. "To date, we have examined six samples and found no change in the underground water," Hossam told the Weekly.
Nonetheless, most of the health and environmental hazards mentioned in the ERC study are said to result from the alleged mismanagement of biogas emissions and garbage leachate. According to ERC's study, Onyx has not yet provided the landfill with the needed equipment to pump biogas emissions, which could cause fires and heat explosions. Furthermore, the study stated that emissions from the landfill exceed the legal limits, and may affect respiration and lead to the erosion of nearby buildings. The treated leachate, the report added, also contains a higher level of pollutants than the maximum average stipulated by Environment Law 4, and, thus, should not be channelled into the sewage system.
Once garbage is dumped in a landfill, it normally starts to decompose, producing biogas emissions -- mainly carbon dioxide and methane -- and a leachate. Both, if not properly managed, "pose serious threats to human health and the environment", according to a study on the environmental impact of landfills in general published by Friends of the Earth's Community Support Programme (FOE), an American environment advocacy organisation.
But, according to Chazelle, emissions should reach a certain stage before they can be pumped. "Until now emissions are not enough to be pumped and treated, which we expect to happen by the end of the year," Chazelle said. "By then, we will have the equipment ready for the job. But if we attempt pumping gas emissions right now, we will actually be pumping air -- a process that is useless, and sometimes even hazardous. It is actually more hazardous to pump gases when you don't have the required conditions, than not pumping at all."
Hossam is not convinced. He insisted that gases should be pumped out during the dumping process, otherwise the building up of gases increase the potential that fires might break out. However, it would seem unlikely for explosions to occur anyway. Chazelle believes that "explosions result from inner pressure [of the gases in the disposal cells] which takes long years to occur, and would definitely not occur since we intend to pump the gases out," he explained. "That the leachate has a high level of pollutants is also not a matter of concern, since we pump it into a waste water treatment plant."
Whether landfills are environment-friendly is a topic of controversy among experts everywhere. Although landfills help avoid the toxic and undesirable by-products of decomposing waste, some experts, including those who put together the FOE report, still believe the current methods of containment "may involuntarily prolong the process of waste decomposition, and lengthen the time period during which leachate and landfill gas can threaten communities". FOE added, "In addition, it is questionable whether the end of biological activity in a landfill signifies an end to its environmental and human health threats." If not, the report predicted, future communities will be left with a "real dilemma of combating pollution emerging from their ancestors' wastes".
"Landfills would be friendly enough if properly managed," commented Chazelle, "but it is also an industry like any other, a human activity where problems may emerge, which would then be our responsibility to control. We are here to do a good job and bring in the best technology and knowledge available." Onyx, however, will leave the sight in 15 years. By then the landfill will have been sealed and landscaped, but, as FOE points out, if such sites do not continue to be carefully monitored, they could present a threat to the environment.
For its part, the ERC report insists the current location is also a violation of the human rights of holiday home owners and area residents.
But even Alexandria University professor Hossam, who has been participating in the monitoring of the site, concedes, "it would definitely be safer to have the landfill away from housing areas, if another place is available."
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