Lebanon Starts to Get Rid of Persistent Organic Pollutants that Endanger Environment and Health

May 12, 2017

  • Lebanon has exported 91 tons of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCB) contaminated waste to France for safe destruction.
  • A national inventory to identify carcinogenic persistent organic pollutants has been launched.
  • Palestinian refugee camps are included in the inventory exercise.

On 21 December 2016, Lebanon successfully got rid of 91 tons of high-risk persistent organic pollutants and the equipment using it, both of which posed a risk to the country’s environment and everyone’s health. These contained Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCB), a group of organic compounds found as lubricants in the manufacture of plastics, as well as fluids in power transformers and protective coating for wood.

These PCB chemical compounds are classified as carcinogenic—shown to cause cancer in humans and animals. Because of these risks, the production of PCBs has been banned all over the world. However, PCBs are still used as dielectric fluids, especially in old power transformers.

"The impact of pollution resulting from those transformers is high,” said Mohamad Al Mashnouk, Lebanon’s former Minister of Environment, at an event held in November at the Zouk Power Plant to mark the first stage of the destruction of the PCBs. “By removing these transformers and capacitors, and sending them to France for proper disposal, we are abiding by international standards and guidelines."

The safe destruction of PCBs requires a highly specialized type of technology that is neither available in Lebanon nor affordable enough for the country to invest in. Therefore, exporting PCB waste was considered its best option. Exporting hazardous waste is not cheap, but Lebanon is benefiting from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) to help it.

Grant financing available for destruction of Persistent Organic Pollutants

This GEF grant financing is available to countries implementing the Stockholm Convention, a global treaty designed to protect human health and the natural environment from chemicals that remain intact in the environment for a long time, that can become widely distributed geographically, accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans and wildlife, and have a harmful impact. The Convention was adopted in 2001 and began to be enforced in 2004. It requires parties to it to take measures to eliminate or reduce the release of Persistent Organic Pollutants into the environment.

PCBs are among these pollutants and the need for their destruction is considered urgent given the potential for their mobility and risk. Lebanon’s Ministry of Environment has been running a PCB Management in the Power Sector project since May 2015, with the support of the GEF and World Bank Group, and in close partnership with Electricité du Liban (EDL).

Eng. Kamal Al-Hayek, Director General of EDL, said this is the first time Lebanon had exported PCB contaminated equipment, by sending about 91 tons of PCB contaminated transformers, capacitors, and oil to France.

A Project Management Unit (PMU) was established inside the MOE to manage the project. It contracted a specialized firm to take charge of the first step of getting rid of out-of-service PCB-contaminated equipment. Closely monitored by the PMU, in less than a month, the firm had collected equipment from nine different EDL sites—the Jieh power plant, Zouk power plant, Bauchrieh substation and storage site, Hazmieh substation, Jamhour substation, Adma substation, Ras Beirut substation, Deir Nbouh substation, and Gaz substation.

The close coordination between the firm contracted to do the job and the MOE and EDL was key to getting the work done efficiently. The PCB waste and equipment they collected was shipped to France on December 21, where it will be disposed of safely at a special treatment facility. PCB waste is tracked during transportation and proof of its destruction are provided once this takes place.

National contamination inventory, including Palestinian refugee camps

The disposal of 91 tons of high risk PCBs is an important achievement, but it is not known how much more PCB-contaminated equipment exists in the country. As the next step, a nationwide inventory is to be compiled to check all transformers and capacitors, one by one, identify all PCBs and label them.

Having a complete inventory is crucial because, if done only partially, in a few years’ time the whole process has to begin all over again. The project is collaborating with UNRWA, the United Nations agency providing assistance to about five million registered Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, to identify PCB-contaminated transformers located inside refugee camps. Staff working in the camps will be trained how to use screening kits to test all the transformers.

A complete inventory will help avoid cross-contamination and allow Lebanon to come up with a long term plan for phasing out PCBs in an environmentally sound manner. Based on the results of the inventory, the second phase of PCB disposal will be conducted toward the end of the project.