The cement import “ban” and pollution

Source: Daily Star

Construction has been one of the largest sectors in Lebanon since the end of its 15-year long Civil War. This post war construction effort, along with population increase and a high amount of remittances from Lebanese expats have lead to billions of dollars being spent on real estate in the country. In 2013, the construction sector contributed to 21% of the Lebanon’s GDP.

One of the main raw materials used in the construction sector is cement, supplied by three major factories in Lebanon. Since 2001, the cement consumed by the sector has been locally produced because of government regulations that effectively working as a ban on imported cement. From an economic perspective, the “ban” may seem as a positive measure that stimulates the local economy. However, it could also be argued that it turned the cement sector into an oligopoly controlled by three entities. The environmental perspective is more straightforward.

The global cement industry is responsible for around 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions. In Lebanon, the cement industry is the largest source of carbon dioxide. In addition to carbon dioxide, cement factories also emit Nitrogen Oxide, Sulfur Monoxide, and Carbon Monoxide in the atmosphere. High concentrations of these pollutants in the atmosphere have detrimental effects on the human body and also cause environmental problems such as ozone depletion, water quality deterioration and acid rain. Mitigation measures for cement factories exist but require implementation and consistent follow up of a comprehensive environmental mitigation plan.

Residents living in the proximity of the three cement factories in Lebanon have long complained about the level of pollution they are exposed to. In 1996, cement was cited as one of the main sources of marine, soil, and air pollution in the Northern Town in Chekka by a Greenpeace study. In 2003, 50 tons of oil that were meant to be used in kiln for a cement plant used by a multinational cement factory was spilled along the northern coast of Lebanon. In 2004, a study by LAU found that pollutants in Chekka have reached unsafe levels. Pollution from cement factories does not only affect the north of the country, a cement factory in the town of Sibline has been responsible for air pollution in the Chouf area. Recently, air pollution control measures have been implemented in the cement factories in Chekka and Sibline; however, some of the residents in Chekka believe these measures are not enough.

Due to the contentious nature of these factories, an uproar has erupted in the town of Ain Dara in Aley District over the prospect of a new cement factory opening in the town. Originally, the cement factory was meant to be established in Zahle, but after protests from residents there the owners decided to move it to Ain Dara.

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the cement facility was carried out and approved by the Ministry of Environment. However, the municipality claims that the source of the water needed for cooling purposes, which is a huge amount, is not clear. As of now, no license has been permitted for the factory.

Since the environmental externalities of the cement factory will affect Lebanon, particularly the residents living near the facility, the EIA needs to be publicly disclosed, especially for such a controversial project. All the EIAs approved by the Ministry of Environment need to be easily accessible. Currently, to obtain an EIA, a request needs to be submitted to the Ministry and the EIA cannot be reviewed until the request is approved. The criteria for approval or rejection of the request are undisclosed. Ideally, the EIAs should be available online so that any resident of Lebanon can access them easily without going through bureaucratic red tape.

The government needs to carry out a comprehensive study on the cement sector with the objective of better understanding the economic and environmental effects of the import restrictions on cement. The importance of the housing sector and high carbon emission levels from the cement industry require the government to revise its policy on the sector on a regular basis. The government should not only be concerned with potential new cement factories but with regulating the industry in a way that will be beneficial to the economy and environment.

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