Last Friday, a mountain of unsorted waste in the sorting facility in the southern city of Sidon caught fire. This is the second fire this facility has experienced in the last two months. While fires in solid waste facilities are not uncommon, especially in places with poor sorting and inadequate waste management practices, there may be more to these two fires.
According to the Al Modon website, an official report concluded that the first fire was manmade. The conclusion was based on how the fire was ignited and spread. Local residents and firefighters at the scene also believe that the fire was not accidental. Despite these findings, there is no information if anyone from the management of the facility was questioned or held accountable. The cause of the recent fire is still unknown.
The main motive behind burning waste is likely to get rid of it. In fact, this is a common practice in Lebanon. Accumulated waste on the streets of Beirut in the aftermath of the Naameh Landfill closure in 2015 were set alight regularly throughout the capital. Uncontrolled dumpsites from the south to the north are regularly set on fire to reduce the amount of the trash. For example, it is very common to see smoke from burning trash in areas adjacent to Sidon-Tyre highway in the south. The difference between these fires and what happened in Sidon is that most of these fires happen in uncontrolled dumpsites. Whereas the waste sorting facility in Sidon is not, it was actually seen as a role model for waste management at one point.
Over the last year, the solid waste facility has not been able to process all the waste it was receiving. This resulted in piling of the waste within the facility. Last July, an endangered sea turtle was found dead in the coastal waters nearby and foul odors were emitting from the facility disturbing the area’s residents. The Mayor of Sidon, after visiting the plant, said the odors “would be sorted out within the next four months, before the end of the year. We gave the operators this deadline and the plant will no longer accept new waste until this is sorted.”
One cannot help but wonder about the transparency surrounding this facility. Two fires breaking out within two months of the four-month deadline. The facility should not only be expected to meet the deadline, but should also be expected to disclose the amount of waste that was sorted in these four months and the methods used to accomplish this, to avoid the operators form disposing of them in illegal ways. If the second fire is shown to be intentional, like the first one, then the whole facility should be under investigation and held accountable for the breach of countless of environmental laws and their waste management contract which many municipalities are paying the operators to fulfill.
This story does not only affect solid waste management but every sector that is outsourced by the public sector. The relationship between the government and the private sector needs to be revised to ensure adherence to existing regulations. Private operators should not be given political cover. This is especially important now that the Lebanese government is in the process of awarding contracts to the private sector for oil and gas exploration. How can we expect the government to properly monitor oil companies in Lebanese coastal waters when they cannot even monitor a solid waste facility on the mainland?