Update: The Shura council reversed two of its previous decisions to halt the construction permit of the Eden Resort at Beirut’s Ramle El Baida beach. The Shura Council’s first decision was based on number of legal violations related to land and environmental regulations. Until now, no explanation has been given on why the Council decided to change its mind, putting into question the independence of the judiciary in the country.
For more information on the previous rulings and how it impacts environmental legislation:
A Lebanese Urgent Matters Judge issued a court order to halt the construction of the Eden Rock Resort on Ramlet El Baida beach in Beirut or pay fine of a 150 million Lebanese Pounds (US$ 100,000) for every day the order is violated. The issue was brought to the court by the plaintiffs (Green Line Association and Legal Agenda) after the developer refused to abide by the two previous two Shura Council rulings.
The first two orders were supposed to suspend construction work for one month while the violations are inspected by the government. The developer of the resort was legally required to cooperate with the government and file a response within a month. This was not done as the contractor carried on with the construction works ignoring the Council’s ruling.
In addition to the zoning laws that were violated, the case was built on the fact that no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out before the construction of the resort. This legal obligation is clearly specified in the EIA law (Decree 8633 of 2012) and the Environmental Protection Law (Law 444 of 2002) makes this a finable offense. Article 15 of Decree 8633 refers to Article 58 of Law 444, which sets the penalty for implementing a project without the required environmental from one month to one year in prison and a fine of 15 million (US$ 10,000) to 200 million (US$ 133,333) Lebanese Pounds.
Article 15 of the EIA Decree states that in addition to a fine, projects that have commenced construction out without an environmental study need to at least develop and implement an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) to address negative impacts on the environment that may be caused by the project. These two penalties would legally remedy the violation of not carrying out an EIA before the construction of the Eden Rock resort started. However, the issue is more complicated than that.
The EIA is a decision making tool that is supposed to be carried out before the start of a project to identify potential impacts and attempt to eliminate or reduce them. According to the EIA Decree, this project would have required an EIA if it was deemed to have a potentially significant impact on a sensitive area by the Ministry of Environment. This would have been likely as the project is located in close proximity to a coastal area, identified as environmentally sensitive by Annex 3 of the decree. Therefore, if the project owner had followed the legal procedure, they would have had to clarify with the Ministry of Environment what type of environmental study is required (probably an EIA), conducted the study and obtained the Ministry’s approval before the construction of the resort commenced.
For each adverse impact identified, the EIA would have provided measures to eliminate or at least minimize its affect through an EMP. Two public consultation sessions would have been legally required and would have allowed relevant stakeholders to voice their concerns at the beginning of the project development phase and given them an opportunity to discuss the findings and recommendations of the EIA study. All of this, including feedback from the Ministry of Environment, may have led to certain changes in the project design with the aim of safeguarding environmental and natural resources.
The EIA is a lengthy process that is designed to obtain and incorporate feedback from various stakeholders and covers the construction, operation and decommissioning phases of a project. The information acquired from this process is to be used to ensure that all negative potential impacts are at least minimized. Limiting the requirements to developing an EMP after construction has already started violates the spirit of the EIA and minimizes its effectiveness.
The final outcome of this case, particularly the ruling on the violations of the EIA Decree, will be an important milestone for environmental law in Lebanon. A relatively small fine (compared to the cost of conducting an EIA and incorporating its findings into the project design which could run up to hundreds of thousands of dollars if the project was not designed properly) and no prison time may present a legal loophole to bypass the EIA requirements in future projects. It makes it more attractive for developers to start construction and then pay the fine and develop an EMP instead of carrying out a full EIA.
This case will be a good litmus test to gauge respect for environmental legislation and independence of the judiciary in Lebanon. Any decision short of upholding the law accompanied by a severe penalty to ensure that ignoring the EIA Decree is not a feasible option would compromise the legal framework protecting environmental resources in the country.