Editor’s note: This story is part of a series entitled “Global Warming: Survival of the Richest” that examines the issues Egypt faces in seeking to meet its environmental commitments, with part one focused on the revived use of coal, its short-term benefits and long-term health concerns.
In an interview with Daily News Egypt in November, Environment Minister Khaled Fahmy denied that the health of citizens was endangered by pollution from factories burning coal to produce power.
“It is not logical to shut down cement plants when the country is going through a process of industrial development,” he said.
New amendments were made to the environment law code of conduct in April, under Ibrahim Mehleb’s cabinet, to officially integrate coal into the energy mix by the end of 2015. The move reversed the previous decision to ban the importation of coal due to its potential health impact.
The amended code stated new rules in shipping and importing coal, and delegated the Ports Authority to monitor this process. It also banned the use of coal for any industrial facilities located near residential areas, although permission could be granted through the prime minister in exceptional cases.
In practice, some say that enforcing environmental regulations is difficult in Egypt because of the tendency for officials to neglect – or even ignore – the rules.
Ahmed Hosny, lawyer at Habi Centre for Environmental Rights (HCER), said: “Environment-related cases are usually settled in the prosecution with a criminal order and a fine without being escalated to courts.”
Violators find it easy to commit such wrongs, according to Hosny, as penalties are limited to fines of affordable amounts, often less than the minimum stipulated by law.
In June 2014, a criminal order was issued against Lafarge Cement, fining them EGP 10,000 for a violation that warranted a fine of at least EGP 20,000 by law. It came after six months of investigations following a report filed by the Minister of Environment in January 2014.
The ministry report stated: “Huge amounts of coal were found at the factory’s location, without prior official approval.”
“The group also got rid of 234,000 tonnes/year of dangerous dust in a disused stone pit,” the report added.
The amended Environmental Law 9/2009 toughens penalties for facilities that cannot show that they have properly disposed of hazardous emissions to a fine of at least EGP 20,000 and 15 years imprisonment.
According to an official at the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA): “The unit has previously monitored some violations at Lafarge Cement ovens, but they responded to our reports and started to make adjustments in line with official environmental regulations.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official at Lafarge told Daily News Egypt on Friday: “We have settled the previous environmental violations against the factory, and we are currently coordinating with EEAA to adjust to regulations within two months.
“The factory is currently using coal based on temporary permission, and we are awaiting a ministry approval for permanent permission,” he added.
HCER’s Hosny further said: “We were never allowed to take part in the investigations for the environmental reports, although it is legal.” The centre’s legal unit instead monitors police reports being filed against companies, and it has found 12 more complaints were filed against Lafarge for its coal use since 2013.
Similarly, a previous complaint was issued against Suez Cement group in January 2014. The Environment Ministry stated: “22 tons/day of By-Pass dust for every production line were disposed in a disused stone pit, without prior approval from the ministry.”
In response, Suez Primary Court issued a criminal order against Suez Cement, involving a fine of EGP 25,000.
Ten non-governmental organisations sent a joint statement to Suez Cement following the court order urging the group to disclose its environmental policies to the public. The group’s response came in October 2015, stating: “All our cement plants are subject to comprehensive audits by EEAA to ensure full compliance with local and international standards.”
They added: “Technological improvements have dramatically reduced many of the environmental impacts traditionally associated with coal.”
Ahlam Farouk, environmental inspection supervisor at EEAA, told Daily News Egypt: “Investigations and periodic inspections are ongoing in factories that did not yet prepare a plan on safely getting rid of hazardous emissions.”
According to Farouk, the ministry gives at least 60 days notice to industrial facilities in order to adjust their performance to official guidelines. “We are currently targeting 30 factories across Egypt to re-adjust their work settings,” she concluded.
In the Wady El-Qamar neighbourhood of Alexandria, just 200 km outside Cairo, the distance between residential blocks and the cement factory is just 10 metres. According to Fahmy, this is the result of unorganised urban expansion.
“The plight of Wady El-Qamar has absolutely nothing to do with Titan Cement plant,” he told Daily News Egypt. The Ministry of Environment sent two committees to investigate the problem, and it turned out that the emitted dust comes mainly from heavy trucks and vehicles driving on unpaved streets, he further mentioned.
As a matter of fact, the cement factory has been located in Wady El-Qamar for a long time. Yet, a controversy lies in its original distance from the residential block when first built compared with the much-reduced distance now. Residents of Wady El-Qamar said a new oven was built near the residential block after the factory was first constructed.
Mohamed El-Dabea, who moved with his family to Wady El-Qamar in 1959, said: “The factory was there but working with only one oven, far away from homes.”
Three more ovens were built, until 1998 when the company was sold to a foreign firm, and according to El-Dabea, a fifth oven was then built.
The plant’s new location sparked angry responses from families in Wady El-Qamar. Several protests were organised, in addition to online campaigns and letters to officials.
A map from the Egyptian Distance Authority in 1944 showcases a residential block of Wady el-Qamar and a vacant space next to it, where El-Dabea says the new oven is now located.
The campaign also monitors dark smog coming from chimneys during the night. In October, the EEAA filed a complaint against the company following an earlier inspection that stated violations of article 43 of environmental law 9/2009 in exceeding the amount of emissions.
The managing director of Titan Cement Egypt refused to comment on this violation in a phone interview with Daily News Egypt.
In its 2014 annual report, Titan said: “In Egypt, we focus on addressing health issues among employees and the wider community.”
Working with the Alexandria University, the group continued to promote a solid-waste campaign targeting youth centres, schools and universities, to improve environmental understanding of solid-waste management issues.
“Before the advent of the fuel shortages, we had moved swiftly to invest in fuel self-sufficiency in Egypt. Despite significant delays in obtaining permits, our first solid-fuels grinding mill at the Beni Suef cement plant came on stream at the end of the year,” they said.
Hany Abo Okeil, one of the residents at Wady El-Qamar who was personally harmed by dust and has been actively campaigning against the cement plant, concluded: “We reject the firm’s constant attempts to give us monetary support. It’s an indirect form of bribery to stop campaigning. Nothing is worth compromising our health for.”
Additional reporting by Shaimaa Al-Badawy and Mohamed Ayyad