Mar. 21, 2015

Mazin Sidahmed| The Daily Star

BEIRUT: When Speaker Nabih Berri filed a lawsuit Thursday against merchants for importing toxic waste into Lebanon, he made a point of doing it both as a Lebanese citizen, as well as in his governmental role, judicial sources told The Daily Star.

The Amal Movement leader did this to emphasize his outrage that traders had allegedly been shipping contaminated waste into the country, the sources said.

The details of the case are murky, but the issue appears to have struck a nerve with both Berri and the general public. However, it is not the first time that Lebanon has been used a dumping site for toxic waste.

In 1987, in the midst of the Civil War, members of the Lebanese Forces militia were paid $22 million by Italian mafia groups to dispose of 15,800 barrels and 20 containers of toxic waste. The LF dispersed the waste throughout Mount Lebanon, then under its control. When the scandal leaked a year later, the country was stricken with paranoia.

Artist Jessika Khazrik has investigated the incident for the past year and a half, turning her findings into an exhibit and performance at the Beirut Art Center. Khazrik grew up a short walk from the Chnanaiir quarry in Kesrouan, where many toxic barrels were stored. Throughout her youth, whenever there was a suspicious death or cancer case, she remembers hearing whispers, “It’s because of the blue barrels…”

“I have in my mind an image of these blue barrels but I don’t know if I have it because I heard stories, even when I was 3 years old,” Khazrik said. “Maybe I have inherited these memories.”

By the time she was born, the media had uncovered the scandal and the news set Lebanon ablaze.

The Health Minister at the time, Joseph al-Hashem, assembled a crack team of scientists to investigate the ramifications of the case: Dr. Milad Jarjoui, Dr. Wilson Rizk and Dr. Pierre Malychef. Their initial investigations found that much of the toxic waste had been burned and dumped in public waste sites.

The barrels contained industrial waste from Italian factories that produced medication, plastics and lubricants, among other things, and were heavily contaminated. According to the scientists’ 1988 report, “The barrels contain toxic industrial waste that is outdated and polluting. It cannot be used in any way.”

The advice went unheeded. The waste, when discovered, was sold and used in a number of capacities. Some was sold to mechanics to be used as soap as it removed oil quickly. Since some of the waste was expired products such as shampoo and toothpaste, opportunistic traders, who stumbled across barrels during the war, bottled and sold them. Empty barrels were repainted and sold to restaurants and farmers to store olives and wheat.

In 1988, six members of the LF were found guilty of causing an “environmental disaster” and a “mass killing” in Lebanon. The prosecutor recommended the death penalty.

In the chaos of the conflict, they were released on bail a week later, and in 1992, acquitted of all charges under an amnesty law, which prevented prosecution of most crimes committed during the Civil War.

Following the initial public outcry, the Italian government agreed to repatriate the waste at its own expense and sent Italian experts to oversee the procedure. But according to a Greenpeace report published later, only 5,500 of the 15,800 barrels were removed. The rest remained in the country or were dumped in the Port of Beirut. Little of the waste was properly disposed of.

The team of scientists condemned the Italians for not properly returning the waste. Today, Rizk is the only surviving member of the team. “There was a Civil War, there was no state, there was a government but only in name,” Rizk recalled. “There was a lot of pressure on me and my colleagues. They started threatening us.”

Of the three, Malychef, who died last year, was by far the most outspoken. The pharmacologist and ecotoxicologist was a prominent voice in the media and wrote for the Revue du Liban. His work made him some enemies. Malychef’s pharmacy has been blown up on two occasions, and he was beaten up and jailed while working on the case.

Through her investigation, Khazrik has spent long hours digging through Malychef’s files at the laboratory in his Bsalim home, trying to decipher his pictures and his thoughts. Her feelings toward him, a combination of fascination and admiration, are palpable.

Malychef meticulously documented the original investigation, taking thousands of photographs and filling countless journals with his notes. Unfortunately, the files are now in no particular order.

In August of 1994, while Khazrik was still learning to speak, a few miles up from her Mount Lebanon home hundreds of local inhabitants prevented officials from the Environment Ministry from dumping 19 barrels of waste in a quarry in a secret nighttime operation.

An MP, Mansour al-Bon, a resident of Kesrouan, alleged that the waste was Italian and demanded that the case be reopened. Malychef was arrested and detained for two weeks for giving “false testimony” on the scandal. The day before his arrest, on national television, he said that toxic waste was scattered all across Lebanon. The blue barrels were back.

Fouad Hamdan, Greenpeace’s Lebanon campaigner at the time, authored the group’s subsequent 1995 report. After the incident in the mountains, he set up their Lebanon office specifically to work on the issue of the toxic waste. He describes the atmosphere at the time:

“You cannot imagine. After a while in Lebanon, when people used to see a barrel somewhere they panicked and the police came and picked it up,” Hamdan recalled. “How often was I called during that time? Barrels in that valley, barrels here, barrels there … there was barrel paranoia in the country.”

According to Hamdan, the remaining waste was eventually shipped to France for incineration in absolute secrecy in 1998. The shipment was never revealed due to pressure from the Syrian government, he said. “Why was I threatened and pressured like hell by authorities and secret service of Syria?” Hamdan said. “The Italian Mafia [also] exported to Syria, between ’81 and ’87, hundreds and thousands of tons of toxic waste.”

After he fled the country in 2006, Ex-Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim-Khaddam was accused of burying large quantities of toxic waste in the Tadmor desert. According to contemporary media reports, a ship used by the Italian mafia named Zenobia transported toxic waste to Syria.

“They were afraid in Lebanon that through the campaign I was carrying out, the issue in toxic waste in Syria would come out,” Hamdan said.

Today, Hamdan and Rizk say they are convinced that there is no longer any toxic waste remaining from the Italian shipment in Lebanon.

Rizk said he and Malychef grew tired of working on the issue.

“After a while [one sees] there is no result from working on this. Nothing changes. They don’t listen. So I left it and went to work at” Universite St. Joseph, Rizk recalled.

The latest scandal is an example of Lebanon’s inability to deal with issues of toxic waste. For Khazrik, it is only the beginning, and she sees herself working on the issue for years to come. She’s currently locating funding to shoot a documentary on the case. In her eyes, the blue barrels will never disappear.

“What we posit by the act of burying under the ground or dumping under the sea is that there is no time there, that there is no movement there. But things do come up and when they do come up it could be very dangerous.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 21, 2015, on page 2.