“Come buy tomatoes before it is polluted,” shouted a sarcastic street vendor to the top of his lungs in one of the alleyways of the Mediterranean city of Damietta, 191 kilometers northeastern Cairo. Odd the call may be, but, in fact, it epitomizes a wide-scale public campaign launched by a growing number of people, NGOs and politicians in the coastal province to rally against the construction of a major Canadian petrochemical plant, E Agrium, being built now on Ras Al-Barr island, one of Damietta’s and Egypt’s, famous middle-class resorts. There has been a growing conviction among the inhabitants of the province that the plant, which is intended to produce ammonia and urea, is detrimental to the surrounding environment and public hygiene.
“Stop the construction of the plant that causes cancer,” read a banner draped from many balconies in the coastal city, signaling a public outcry over the construction of the plant that started few weeks ago when a group of environmentalists voiced their deep concerns over its harmful effects. The campaign, in fact, was not limited to banners, but it also reached the cyber space with three groups on the popular website Facebook calling for the stopping of the construction of the plant. Demonstrations were organised by trade unions, members of political parties and civil society activists to call upon the government to stop the project. Lawsuits were filed by lawyers against the company, the prime minister and the minister of environment for approving the construction of the plant.
“The decision to build this plant is considered a crime since it endangers the public hygiene, the environment, animals and plants,” said Abdel-Rahman El-Wakil, professor of plant diseases at Mansoura University. “The plant is planned to store 30,000 tons of ammonia in storage adjacent to the residential area, which is considered a violation of the conditions of environment safety. And in spite of the state-of-the-art technology the plant will employ, if a human error occurred in this plant, the entire delta will be destroyed,” he warned.
The Habi Centre for Environmental Rights also issued a statement warning against the construction of the plant since “it would cause an environmental disaster as it would affect the tourist activities expansion in Ras El-Barr. It will also negatively affect the marine life because of the water that will be poured into the sea from the plant, which will affect fish in the area.”
Mohamed Nagui, director of the centre, argued that “this plant will endanger the ecological equilibrium of the area due to the chemical emissions caused by the plant. In addition, the proximity of the plant to the residential areas will negatively affect the public health, taking into consideration that ammonia storages could explode for any reason.”
Nagui added that petrochemical industries are listed among the worst as long as environment is concerned. “E Agrium has caused pollution in Ohio and Argentina, violating environmental safety,” he added.
Gamal Meria, chairman of the Consumers Protection Society, warned against the negative effects of the plant on the surrounding environment. “The temperature of the sea will increase by 6 Celsius because of the hot water coming out of the plant, resulting in the killing of fish which is the main source of income for many people in Ras Al-Barr,” he warned. “The plant will endanger the ecosystem of the island,” he pointed out.
Meria, who championed a popular campaign against the plant in schools, at cafes and on the Internet, admitted that there “are four other petrochemical plants in the area adjacent to the new plant, but fertilizers is one of the worst industries that has detrimental effects on the surrounding area.” He added that “the Environment Law states that the building of such plants should be 30 kilometers at least from residential areas, while this plant is only about 7 kilometers from the residential areas.”
As the construction works in the location of the plant started, the residents of the city raised a great hue and cry, with thousands of demonstrations taking to the streets in protest of the project. “All the community here is rejecting the plant since Ras Al-Barr is the only getaway for them,” said Bandalaimoun Bushra, a bishop. “People began to resist the building of the plant when they have realised it is detrimental to the environment and public health. And they are ready to enter into strikes if the construction is continued,” he pointed out.
The issue was also raised in the People’s Assembly’s Health committee as many an MP called upon the government to stop the project or relocate it in an area far away from the residential area. “There was a plan to turn Ras El-Barr island into a nature reserve, so it is not safe to build a plant manufacturing ammonia which could destroy the [environment of] the entire area,” said Mahmoud Siyam, an MP from Damietta. Head of the committee, Hamdi El-Sayed, said that the members of the committee would pay a visit to the site of the plant next week to assess the situation.
Surprisingly enough, the company has obtained all the necessary approvals from the concerned government agencies, including the ministry of environment. Creg McGlown, managing director of the company, attributed the fuss over the plant to “a conflict between two government agencies over the land on which the plant is being constructed. While the company has obtained the approval of the Council of Ministers and all the concerned ministries, the Governor of Damietta surprisingly objected the construction of the plant.”
McGlown added that there are some government agencies and investors who wanted to take the site of the project, and “they disseminate false, unfounded information about the plant.” He pointed out that “every project has a negative environmental effect, but our plant achieves the highest environmental safety levels, since the emissions coming out from our plant is half the maximum emissions stipulated in the [Environment] Law No. 4/1994.”
Eng. Khaled Salama, executive director of the plant, said that the people of Damietta “are being misled by a group of people. And we are trying to reach out to people to provide them with correct information about the project.” He added that “we have conducted a study on the environmental effects of the project and the four nearby plants on the surrounding environment, and we will build an environment monitoring station in cooperation with other projects in the area to control any negative effects.”
The issue has continued to send ripples across government, legislative and diplomatic circles. The minister of environment denied that there was any plans to turn this area into a nature reserve, and “all what is said about the potential negative effects of the project is unfounded,” since a study was conducted by senior experts and professors on the environmental effects of the plant and found no problem in constructing it.
Other environment officials defended their decision in another parliamentary session held in the first week of May to give the go-ahead to the plant during The People’s Assembly debate. “Environmental studies of the project showed that emissions from the plant would be within the statutory limits,” says Mawaheb Abul-Azm, head of the Environmental Affairs Authority. She refuted claims by local citizens and environmentalists that have appeared in the media that the island had earlier been earmarked as a nature reserve.
Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab stressed that the plant “would never be completed without the agreement of the local community”. He added that Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif had summoned the chairman of E Agrium and told him that the government would not allow construction work to continue in the absence of local support for the project.
The parliamentary session ended with a decision to set up a fact-finding commission to investigate the issue amid growing speculation that plans were afoot to move the project to Ain Sukhna in Suez governorate. The rumours gained momentum when the chairman of the Shura Council Industry Committee, Mohamed Farid Khamis, announced that he was ready to donate half-a-million square metres of land in Suez for the building of E Agrium’s fertiliser plant, a move widely seen as an attempt to compensate the Canadian company for the money it has already spent.
What made the situation further complicated is that E Agrium has spent around $500 million USD so far — according to company officials — and it has become very difficult to move it to another place as the opponents of the project want. Therefore, President Mubarak held a meeting with the concerned ministers and the governor of Damietta earlier this month to find a way out. “The President assigned Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and the concerned ministers to go to Damietta to soothe the people’s fears,” said Sulaiman Awwad, spokesman of the presidency. Awwad reported that the president said that if there was a problem, it was the lack of communication between the concerned ministers and the people.
Up till now, no government official visited the area to address the people’s fears. And despite the fact that the construction on the site has been temporarily stopped by authorities because the company didn’t obtain necessary approvals from local housing department, apprehension is still reigning supreme in the calm city. While some of the people said that they would organise more demonstrations to stop the construction of the project, many others stressed that “we will sell our houses and emigrate if this plant is constructed.”
By Mohamed El-Sayed