TRIPOLI, Libya — One of the best omens for Libya’s eventual development of a robust democracy is the grassroots civic activism in Zwara, Libya’s so-called “Berber capital,” a seaside town of 50,000. Spearheaded by a grad student in economics, Riad el-Hamisi, locals have successfully pressured the Ministry of Industry to investigate and clean up toxic waste dumping at the town’s largest employer, the archaic, barely functional Abu Kamesh Chemical Complex.
Bu Kamesh, as it’s locally known, was using mercury in one of its reactors up until the economic disruptions of the 2011 revolution forced the shuttering of the plant. It may have been the only PVC plant in the world still using the toxic substance, and at least a dozen former employees are now seeking treatment for mercury poisoning. The United States, one of the world’s major exporters of mercury, has banned its export beginning in 2013.
One of the tragedies of the irrational Qaddafi dictatorship was that so much of the damage it caused didn’t even make economic sense.
First of all, as a former Zwara infrastructure supervisor, Ibrahim Gibara, puts it, Bu Kamesh should never have been built where it was. The chemical complex had been built in an area of salt marshes because the PVC component chlorine is manufactured from industrial salt, but those marshes are only a few hundred yards from the sea and a fishing lagoon. The area is earthquake-prone. Farwah Island, just a few miles from the plant, contains a national park and Qaddafi’s government had been planning to build a resort hotel there. And there are extensive, unexcavated Roman ruins all around the plant that could be a focal point for tourism themselves.
Second, because mercury has been banned internationally for many uses, Bu Kamesh could only buy it in the form of an industrial by-product, contaminated with crude oil, from the Algerian oil industry. This damaged the reactor so that it was operating “two months on, two months off,” in the words of its former public relations director, Sudki Jirafa. And although Philipp Holzmann, the German construction company that opened the plant in 1980, specified 600 employees, Qaddafi insisted on featherbedding it with 980 workers, including more than a hundred men from various state security agencies, who kept a watch on the rest of the employees. It is questionable whether the plant was profitable for most of its life.
The main rationale for operating Bu Kamesh, according to Jirafa, who worked there since 1997, was providing locally sourced hydrochloric acid and caustic soda (lye) to the Libyan petroleum industry; the 60,000 international tons of PVC produced annually were an afterthought (and a mere one fifth of one percent of world production levels). This was also irrational. Libya couldn’t buy the caustic soda on the international market because Qaddafi’s red tape made it too cumbersome.
The brownfields where waste was dumped range from 300 yards to 3 miles from the plant, so the workers were poisoning themselves as well as their neighbors and the Mediterranean. But no one dared speak out. Even workers who complained of sickness were usually pressured to return to work, says Dr. Ibrahim Ghirry, 69, the former head of the local unemployment insurance board. As Jirafa says, the only action he could take was refusing to eat fish from the neighboring lagoon, a popular angling spot.
The story of how the damage was exposed is a happier one. Riad el-Hamisi visited the plant surreptiously last summer, when it was shuttered due to lack of fuel and mercury. He vowed to return with a video camera after the Qaddafi regime fell. His US-educated filmmaker uncle, Essa el-Hamisi, helped him edit his footage, which aired on the Doha-based channel Libya TV on November 16th. In the next month, Zwara government and activists met with the Ministry of Industry. Initially skeptical, the bureaucrats were persuaded to require a cleanup prior to any tender for private companies to take over the plant. The current issue of the English-language Tripoli Post contains an ad for bids for inspection and clean-up; Arabic-language Libyan newspapers are seeking tenders for the plant. (An Italian and a Turkish company have bid so far; it’s unclear if they realize the extent of the cleanup required).
Libya is full of environmental disasters, most dramatically the ongoing practice of gas flaring in the southern oil fields and Tripoli’s discharging untreated sewage into the Mediterranean. But it is also full of highly motivated patriots like the Zwara group, who are beginning to undo the damage of the mad dictatorship they overthrew.