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The Daily Star

Quarries determined by ‘politics,' not environment

Maha Al-Azar
Daily Star staff

Quarry licensing is influenced by politics, making it had for regulations to be applied regardless of owners' political connections, environmental and industry experts said over the weekend.

Allegations of political influence over the controversial industry were made by numerous participants at a conference on the industry at the Order of Engineers and Architects headquarters in Jnah on Saturday.

However, the most striking admissions came from Environment Ministry director-general Berj Hatjian, who reported that during previous Environment Minister Arthur Nazarian's term, he was “compelled” to approve permit requests for two environmentally unsound quarries, “because they were already authorized by the Cabinet.” “Out of 52 permit applications, I had to approve two that didn't meet the requirements. I also approved three others that did, and I rejected 47,” he said.

When asked why he didn't reject the two, Hatjian said: “I couldn't. They were approved by the Cabinet.” Hatjian also admitted that there was no guarantee a master plan managing quarries would treat all quarry owners equitably.

Environmentalists admitted to such an obstacle, but said the only way out was by the public keeping a vigilant eye over government decisions. “The only way to ensure that a quarry management plan is applied equitably is for people to get out on the streets and protest every time the rules are broken,” said Ali Darwish of Green Line, a local environmental organization that organized the conference with the support of the ministry.

Yehia Jaber, secretary-general of the Quarry Owners Association, claimed that the campaign against quarries intended to shut down “small investors' quarries, which constitute 85 percent of all quarries, for the benefit of big investors who are well-connected with influential government officials.” Participants also criticized the government for issuing so-called “administrative deadlines” instead of real permits.

The deadlines are effectively short-term renewable permits that enable quarries to bypass inspection and defy regulations.

“If quarries are eligible for permits, then why aren't real permits issued instead of these administrative deadlines?” asked Fadwa Kallab, an environmental economist and activist. For Jaber, the answer was simple. “The Interior Ministry (under the former government) issued these short-term permits to fill up its empty coffers from the fees it could collect on these permits.”

Statistics on the industry are unclear. A 1995 study found 229 quarries in Lebanon , of which only 129 were legal, according to Adel Yacoub of the Environment Ministry's Department of Nature Conservation. But Jaber said that in 1997, the number of quarries shrunk to 71, while Edward Bahouth, representing the Order, said that in 1996, field visits showed there were 570 rock quarries and more than 250 sand quarries.

Participants also complained that a quarry master plan first proposed in 1997 is still under wraps. “No one really knows if it has been approved or not,” said Salman Abbas from Green Line. “We've requested it from various ministries, but no one could produce it.” Abbas stated that “politicians want to keep it secret so they can use it according to their own interests. If they release it, they'll be bound to follow it, whereas now, no one knows exactly where quarrying is permitted.”

The conference ended with participants urging that the master plan be unveiled and that Parliament's Environment Committee publicize its agenda. Recommendations also included passing a bill that would require an environmental impact assessment prior to any projects and empowering the Environment Ministry, whose recommendations are currently only consultative and non-binding.