Lebanon burns toxic fuel to avoid total blackout

Plumes of thick black smoke billowed from the old Zouk power plant in Lebanon this week, stoking Lebanese concerns as experts warned that the shoddy fuel authorities were using to power the plant was a danger to health and the environment.

The Ministry of Energy and Water has not commented on the danger the smoke poses to residents. But experts said the air pollution caused by burning substandard fuel in an aging plant could have serious health and environmental consequences.

“This black smoke contains carcinogenic heavy metals, which pose a long-term public health hazard,” said opposition MK Najat Saliba, a professor of chemistry at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.

With dwindling central bank dollar reserves, cash-strapped Lebanon is struggling to secure fuel imports for its power plants. In the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis, the country is facing severe electricity shortages, with the Lebanese public company Electricité du Liban (EDL) barely able to supply a few hours of electricity a day.

For the past year, the country has relied exclusively on Iraq to operate its power plants, as part of a barter agreement.

But shipments have been delayed and Prime Minister Nagib Mikati and Energy Minister Walid Fayad on Friday approved the operation of the old Zouk and Jiyyeh power plants with 40,000 tons of poor quality fuel that had been stored for months.

This amount will be enough to supply vital state institutions, including Beirut’s port, airport and water stations, with a few hours of electricity for about a month.

As viral images of the thick smog sparked outrage on social media, the Department of Energy and Water and EDL said in a statement on Wednesday they were ‘sorry’ for any environmental damage caused by smoke and any damage to people living near the plant, saying the move was an “exceptional decision” to avoid “total darkness”.

“The ‘trash can’ of fuel”

Middle East Power (MEP), the private company operating two new power plants, initially refused to use the cargo, which arrived last January.

“Lab analysis showed that the fuel was not in line with the new power plants,” MEP operations director Yahiya Mawloud said. The Nationaladding that it could have “damaged the engines, so we stored it in our tanks”.

But EDL decided to use the fuel for the two oldest plants, which the state-owned company operates alongside the new ones. “EDL has to perform its own test to assess fuel compliance as older factories have a different fuel handling system,” Mawloud said.

EDL dismissed any issues with the fuel and said in a statement that it was within power plant specifications.

“I think it was a mistake to use the fuel; there is a reason why we rejected it,” Mr. Mawloud said.

Much of Lebanon’s aging electricity grid still relies on low-quality, heavy fuel oil for power generation. Investment in more efficient and cleaner production methods has never been made, in a sector crippled by corruption and years of mismanagement.

“This type of fuel should not be burned near residential areas such as Zouk. It constitutes major health and environmental risks for the population,” said Ms. Saliba. “It’s ‘trash’ fuel, and no one wants it,” she added.

The two former factories released hazardous air pollutants for decades. “Our research measured 10 times more of certain carcinogenic pollutants in the Zouk region than in the capital,” Ms Saliba said.

Obsolete plants

EDL said the black smoke was a “technical” issue caused by “grid instability” after the plant’s engines restarted.

But experts pointed to a series of shortcomings. “It seems the proper protocol was not followed, such as cleaning the turbines to get rid of toxic particles – or preheating the fuel before sending it to the burners to make it less viscous,” said the transition expert. energy Charbel Moussa.

“This reaction was expected: imagine starting a very old car after a long period with inappropriate fuel. The Zouk and Jiyyeh plants are operating beyond their expected lifetime and they should have been decommissioned years ago,” he added.

Pollution from the Zouk factory has long been a reality for locals. “As far back as I can remember, I’ve seen dark clouds rise from the factory every now and then,” said Anthony, a 30-year-old entrepreneur who grew up in the neighborhood.

“We feel helpless, and it’s not like we’re somehow compensated. We get as little electricity as everyone else,” Anthony said.

Updated: September 12, 2022, 03:17