The quarry issue was brought back to the spotlight last month after the Internal Security Forces recommended the closure of the quarries in Kfar Matta until the Ministry of Environment proposes recommendations. The Ministry of Interior and Municipalities ordered a nationwide halt to all quarry operations for one month. This order was met with a strike by the Truck Owners Union that crippled traffic into Beirut for a day. The government then decided to reopen licensed facilities and gave illegal factories one month to adhere to all regulations.
The quarry sector in Lebanon has long been mismanaged and overlooked by law enforcement agencies. During the post war reconstruction in the 1990s, there was a very high demand for construction material (stones, sand, wood, etc.) leading to the proliferation of quarries throughout Lebanon. The number of quarries increased from 711 to 1,278 between 1996 and 2005. During this time, the quarry land area increased by almost 84%; from 2,873 ha and 5,283 ha. These quarries have had a severe impact on the local environment. Landscapes and ecosystems have been altered, causing severe damage to the biodiversity and deteriorating groundwater resources.
Until 1996, Quarries in Lebanon were regulated by a decree that was issued during the French mandate period (Decree 235 of 1935). This decree mainly set guidelines on technical issues and did not regulate the licensing procedure. As a result, there were no set conditions or guidelines for obtaining a license and various government entities issued quarrying licenses. In 1994, with the first Minister of Environment, the Council of Ministers issued Decree 5616 that clarified the regulatory framework and regulated the licensing procedure (making the MOE the sole government entity permitted to issue licenses). The National Council for Quarrying (NCQ), a committee that comprised of representatives from different ministries, was established under the jurisdiction of the MOE to provide recommendations to the Ministry on the quarrying sector. However, in 1995, the Council of Ministers repealed Decree 5616 stating that the Ministry of Environment had overstepped its jurisdiction. Subsequent Ministers attempted to push for an adoption of a quarry masterplan but were never approved by the Council of Ministers.
The quarry legislation stayed in this state until 2002. During this time, quarry licenses were being issued by different government entities and quarries operated throughout the country. The cabinet passed Decree 8803 in 2002 which finally regulated the licensing process. The decree allowed quarrying activities to be operated freely in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range bordering Syria. Outside that region, quarries were to be regulated and the NCQ responsible for issuing licenses. Despite this being a promising step, the decree lacked enforcement mechanisms making it easy for quarry owners to bypass it.
In 2010, 8 years after Decree 8803 was issued, there were an estimated 700 to 1,300 illegal quarries in Lebanon. The lack of regulation and high profits had attracted many influential people, including politicians, to invest in these quarries. The politicians who are linked to quarries are known and the little effort they make to conceal their business indicates the lack of any will to enforce regulations. In fact, a very influential quarry owner managed to get the government to pay him millions in compensation for shutting down his quarry.
Unfortunately, the recent government decisions on quarrying will not be very beneficial to the environment or regulate the quarrying sector. Without a quarrying master plan that takes into account environmental considerations and ensures land degradation neutrality, business will continue as usual. Previous governments have enforced similar bans, but they never really reduced the number of illegal quarries.
The management of the quarry sector by the Lebanese government is similar to its management of the electricity, solid waste, and water sectors, i.e. without taking into consideration any of the externalities associated with these activities.