By Van Meguerditchian
The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Tests show the red liquid that contaminated the Beirut River earlier this month was not dangerous, Environment Minister Nazim Khoury said Thursday.

Around two weeks ago, the Beirut River turned red after a stream of an unidentified liquid began pouring into the river through a sewage pipe adjacent to a bridge in Furn al-Shubbak.

The results of tests carried out at the American University of Beirut’s Central Laboratory indicate that the change in color was caused by a large amount of industrial red dye.

“In general, the laboratory tests indicate that the substance found in the river is not harmful to the environment and it is simply a dye used as coloring in industry,” Khoury said.

However, the tests and efforts by the Environment Ministry have not identified the source of the red dye which spilled into the Mediterranean Sea last month.

“On Feb. 22, I sent separate letters to the Council for Development and Reconstruction and the Energy Ministry to help us locate the source of the red dye … neither has replied to my request,” Khoury told The Daily Star.

Khoury said his ministry would continue its investigation along with other ministries and the Public Prosecutor’s office.

Speaking at a news conference, Khoury said the ministry was currently trying to identify the sewage network connected to the pipe that emptied the red dye into the river. “It’s not going to be an easy task given the vast geographic space surrounding the area [where the dye was emptied],” he said.

“We are still waiting for the map of the sewage networks in the area from the Council for Development and Reconstruction, and we hope they will send it to us soon,” Khoury added.

But the map could be a dead end, Khoury said. “We cannot rule out the possibility that the waste was transferred to the area by trucks and then discharged into the area’s sewage system,” he said.

Local officials in Furn al-Shubbak said last month that contamination of the Beirut River takes place regularly.

Eyewitnesses in the area reported seeing various colors of liquid flowing from a sewage pipe there into the Beirut River every few months. One man who runs a car rental shop in the area who declined to be identified told The Daily Star that industries wait for winter to dump waste into the running water.

Dismissing reports of the presence of dangerous chemicals in the red dye, Khoury cited the laboratory tests, which ruled out the presence of chemical compounds such as cyanide and chromium (VI) in the samples retrieved from the river.

Chromium (VI) is known for its carcinogenic effects, and the presence of cyanide in the river could have hurt a number of marine organisms in the Mediterranean. Although the practice is illegal, some still gather live fish by spraying sodium cyanide into the sea to stun and bring them to aquariums.

According to Ahmad Houry, a Professor of Natural Sciences at the Lebanese American University, the phenomenon of discharging such waste into the river is extremely dangerous.

“I am glad they didn’t find Chromium (VI) and Cyanide in the samples this time,” he said.

Houry also said that the ministry should also make sure the contamination has not added any harmful bacteria into the river.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 02, 2012, on page 4.

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