Militias leave behind `ecological time-bomb' from Italy

Lebanon / toxic waste scandal
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IN THE foothills of Mount Lebanon and near the Mediterranean coast - where the country's new tourists are once again being advised to ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon - lie an estimated 10,000 barrels of toxic waste. Some are said to lie deep beneath the all-year snows of Mount Sannine, others around the Armenian Bourj Hammoud suburb of Beirut - a lethal cocktail of chemicals which, according to Greenpeace, constitutes "an ecological time-bomb" in one of the Middle East's most beautiful, if war-scarred, countries.

Incredibly, all this has been known for at least six months - since Greenpeace, at the request of the Lebanese government, examined two containers of methyl and ethyl acrylate, used in the manufacture of plastic, which were found lying unprotected in Beirut port.

Since then, the cabinet has set up a judicial inquiry to find out who encouraged the Italians to dump the chemicals here at the height of the civil war in 1987. But the inquiry has reached no conclusions; a 70-year- old pharmacist hired by a parliamentary sub-committee to give evidence was arrested for allegedly making false statements; a parliamentarian has accused the Environment Minister of involvement in chemicals smuggling - and Greenpeace has been told its offer to help remove the toxic waste will not, for the present, be accepted.

Fouad Hamdane, Greenpeace's Mediterranean spokesman, said 2,000 barrels of chemical waste were buried at Bourj Hammoud, another 2,000 on waste ground at Karantina - the site of a Palestinian camp whose inhabitants were massacred by Phalangist militiamen in 1976 - and up to 800 barrels were dumped at Chnanir, scarcely two miles from the residence of the Maronite Catholic patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir.

Almost all were brought into the country by the Christian "Lebanese Forces" militia, whose leader, Samir Geagea, is now on trial on unrelated charges of mass murder. The militia dumped the entire stock of 16,000 barrels in Christian areas of Lebanon. How many millions of dollars the militia received for an act which some Lebanese regard as little less than a war crime is not known.

Wartime residents recall how, driving behind lorries carrying the barrels into the mountains, they were forced to stop because their eyes were weeping from escaping chemicals.

Until last autumn, the dump at Chnanir was marked only by a few iron rods poking 8ins out of the ground. Other dumps may still be undiscovered. Almost all the chemicals - which included toxic chlorinated paraffins and toxic heavy metals in solid waste - were brought into Lebanon from Italy aboard the Radhost, a Czech ship, between September 1987 and June 1988, when Beirut port was controlled by the Christian militia. The near- powerless Lebanese government of the time persuaded Italy to retrieve 6,000 barrels, but the remainder were buried along the coastline and in the foothills of Kesrouan.

According to studies of the solid waste at Essex University, the chemicals include HCBD, which causes neurological and kidney damage and is a possible carcinogen. In February, when Greenpeace first offered to help the Lebanese dispatch the remaining 10,000 barrels back to Italy, the organisation said the two containers still lying in the Beirut docks, which included highly inflammable liquid, were inadequately stored, and that vapours were leaking through the metal. The Justice Minister, Bahij Tabbara, announced an inquiry in which, he said, "the law will spare no one". And the Environment Minister, Samir Moqbel, demanded the "maximumn penalty" for those involved.

Upon which things became a little complicated, when a Christian deputy, Samir Aoun, accused Mr Moqbel and two of his senior aides of complicity in the scandal, allegations which the three men vigorously denied. Then Pierre Malyechev, an elderly pharmacist hired by the parliamentary sub- committee on the environment, was arrested for supposedly making false statements to the inquiry. Mr Malyechev fell ill in the first hours of his imprisonment, and was transferred to hospital before being released - with the apparent explanation that his not entirely fluent Arabic had been misunderstood by police officers. Mr Malyechev is half-Russian.

More surprising still was the unwillingness of the Lebanese to allow Greenpeace to get to work on removing the poisons. "I'm sorry to say," Mr Hamdane announced last month, "that every time I've proposed to go to the spot with a team of experts ... no one has responded."

The government, it seemed, preferred to complete the judicial inquiry before removing the toxic waste. Did it wish to keep the evidence of the crime in situ for possible legal action against the culprits? Was there some reason why the Lebanese did not wish to pursue any action against the Italian government for the original dumping? Italy is the biggest EU exporter to Lebanon and, perhaps more important, is believed to be the biggest donor of reconstruction aid after the 15-year civil war.

A post-war general amnesty law, passed in 1991, may protect those responsible, although some lawyers believe it would be of no benefit to defendants should charges be brought against them.

The delays have angered doctors, including Fouad Boustany, president of the Lebanese Doctors Union, who, in a newspaper article headed "Toxic waste and poisoned ministers", suggested that "the greater the crime, the less we can expect justice".