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A Different Kind of Green in Libya

ZWARA, Libya, August 23 — I have written before in this blog about one of the lesser-known sins of Muammar Qaddafi, the pillaging of the Libyan environment. Both Libyan state enterprises and foreign companies operating in Libya have been guilty of toxic waste dumping, gas flaring, and disregard of standard safety and health measures for factory workers. Now, the new management of one of the worst violators is speaking candidly about what the former regime did.

Abdussalam Mammar—educated at the University of Toledo—is the new head of the management committee of Abu Kamesh Chemical Complex, a group of five plants located just 12 miles from the Tunisian border and 24 from the city of Zwara. Opened in 1980, it has barely been modified since. The Qaddafi regime boasted that Bu Kamesh, as it’s known locally, was North Africa’s largest PVC plant. Even so, the plant’s maximum production of 60,000 international tons a year was only one fifth of one percent of world production. Bu Kamesh also had the dubious distinction of being perhaps the last PVC plant in the world to use mercury in the manufacturing process. (The United States, one of the world’s major exporters of mercury, has banned its export beginning in 2013.) The complex was shuttered during the revolution and has remained closed, though workers were paid their normal wages until August. Now, the new government is discussing whether to re-open the plant in cooperation with a foreign partner (Turkish and Italian companies have bid) or to do a complete shutdown and environmental cleanup.

On previous visits to Zwara, I’d heard from local activists about suspected mercury dumping in the area around the plant, and Essa el-Hamisi and his nephew Riad el-Hamisi even took me to see an unguarded open concrete shed about two miles from the plant where hundreds of cylinders marked “metal mercury” were stacked. But former employees of the plant denied that they were disposing of wastes containing mercury in the sea, which is a popular place for local fisherman. Today, Abdussalam Mammar readily admits what many have long suspected.

“We are throwing mercury in the sea for a long time.” He explained that it had become increasingly difficult to buy mercury over the last two years and that if the plant ever re-opens, it will not use mercury again. “There is no guarantee that it will be profitable,” he noted, even though he expects that if it is run in cooperation with a foreign company the workforce will be slashed from Qaddafi’s featherbedded 1,000 workers to fewer than 400. 

The main rationale for operating Bu Kamesh was providing locally sourced hydrochloric acid and caustic soda (lye) to the Libyan petroleum industry; Libya couldn’t buy the caustic soda on the international market because of government bureaucracy. Now it isn’t clear that Libya needs a PVC plant at all.

“For myself,” Mammar says, “I wish they would change this plant to something else, like a fish factory and cold storage, that we know will be profitable and will not harm the sea. Qaddafi did not make this plant for profit. He made it to make propaganda for himself and to make settlements of Arab people.”

Abdullah Balam, a manager at the plant, explained that “all the land from [the Tunisian border at] Ras ajJeer to Melitta belonged to Zwara people.” Qaddafi wanted to introduce an Arab population in this historically Amazigh (Berber) area. Most of the plant’s higher management were Arabs who lived in towns to the south of Zwara, with cultures that aren’t oriented to fishing or the sea. Ironically, now that the Bu Kamesh plant may be shuttered, it is finally run by a man from the town that is most affected by its fate.

“He is the first person from Zwara to sit in that chair in 30 years,” Balam said proudly as we spoke in Mammar’s modest office.

Libya has a long way to go before people have the environmental or even safety consciousness of the developed world. There are rumors about worker exposure to mercury at Bu Kamesh and Mammar said the blood tests done by Libya’s Ministry of Industry in the Qaddafi years showed high levels of mercury in workers. But, he said, “Before we provided all the filters but no one using. People working with mercury were not using the filters. When we see them we write down their names, but …” This isn’t surprising in a country where no one uses seat belts or wears motorcycle helmets, and most adult males are heavy smokers. But Mammar’s candor is an inspiring sign for a better future here. 

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