What's preventing the removal of potentially explosive chemicals from Zouk power plant?

For more than three years, Zouk Thermal Power Plant has been caught in a web of bureaucratic disorder while the issue of hazardous materials at the facility remains up in the air.

What's preventing the removal of potentially explosive chemicals from Zouk power plant?

The Zouk Thermal Power Plant, located along the coast in Jounieh, north of Beirut. (Credit: AFP)

The threat of toxic materials in Lebanon became a particularly sensitive subject after the country suffered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. The Beirut port blast on Aug. 4, 2020, was the result of mishandled ammonium nitrate, incorrectly stored and neglected despite warnings filed directly with the Public Works Ministry.

With the onset of war in Gaza and subsequently in southern Lebanon, focus shifted away from the issue, but in March, new controversies brought it back into the spotlight and, since then, pressure has been mounting on the authorities to take the steps necessary to avoid another preventable disaster.

People living near Zouk Thermal Power Plant — built in Jounieh in the 1940s and recently closed for almost a year due to lack of resources — are specifically concerned about the presence of hydrochloric acid, a highly corrosive material that isn’t flammable on its own but “reacts violently with various substances.”

Rachel el-Hage, a researcher at the American University of Beirut (AUB) Chemistry Department, explained that when hydrochloric acid comes in contact with certain metals, including common metals such as aluminum, it can produce hydrogen gas, which is “highly flammable and explosive when mixed with air.”

The combination of its significant corrosiveness and reactiveness means that storing the chemical in or running it through any material that isn’t corrosion-resistant, such as pipes, valves, fittings and containers could cause a leak that would quickly become explosive, especially in an industrial setting. Hage added that elevated temperatures are also a risk, as they can lead to an increase of pressure in storage containers, causing them to leak or rupture.

Bechara Attieh, recently retired from his position as head of the Production Department at Electricité du Liban (EDL), responsible for the Zouk power plant, claims the risk does not exist.

"We have issued several press releases in the past assuring people that there are no hazardous materials," he told L’Orient-Le Jour. "Army experts have taken samples and published reports on the subject.”

Attieh claims hydrochloric acid is necessary for the plant’s operation, particularly for water treatment. "There is a long list of products and they are not dangerous. Even if Israel bombs the plant, nothing will happen.”

According to Hage, hydrochloric acid is used to adjust the pH levels of water used in boilers and cooling systems at power plants, for cleaning and maintenance, such as removing accumulated deposits in pipes. But, she said, while the chemical may be effective, less risky alternatives are available, including sulfamic acid, citric acid, and phosphoric acid all of which are effective and common, while being less corrosive and less toxic.

Mixed messages

Lebanon's Cabinet released a decision on June 15 that outlines the chain of events that has marked more than three years of concern about the facility.

“The plant’s protection and prevention department is doing its utmost to secure the plant through night and day patrols,” the statement reads. “The hydrogen cylinders are connected and difficult to move or dismantle. The old hydrogen production station adjacent to the new one is electrically isolated, with its storage cylinders empty.”

According to the Cabinet’s report, about 350 kilograms of hydrochloric acid, “essential for the plant's operation,” are stored safely in a “dedicated facility” approved and supervised by the Lebanese Army, and inspected multiple times by security agencies.

The Cabinet’s decision concludes by saying:“Official reports indicate that the chemicals at Zouk Thermal Power Plant are stable, well-packaged, regularly inspected and do not pose any danger to public health or safety.”

However, the majority of the text outlines extensive discussions regarding the transfer and disposal of “hazardous wastes” at the plant. It refers specifically to the transfer of “chemicals like trisodium phosphate and disodium trioxosilicate.” Like hydrochloric acid, disodium trioxosilicate also reacts with common metals such as aluminum to produce flammable hydrogen gas.

On March 26, the General Directorate of State Security conducted a patrol of the facility. It later released a statement saying it had found "potentially dangerous, explosive chemicals at the site.”

According to a statement released by caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s office on June 12, a meeting was then held with the head of the plant and the head of the maintenance department, who said that the existing chemicals, trisodium phosphate and disodium trioxosilicate, "are not dangerous, but had expired about 10 years ago and are packed for transport.”

Removing the chemicals

The former EDL production director, Attieh, may have downplayed the issue, but that didn’t make it go away. The current director-general at EDL, Kamal al-Hayek, received in early March a notice from the Public Prosecution ordering him to remove explosive chemicals from the Zouk plant.

Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi had informed the Cabinet of “hazardous materials” at the plant in a report filed back in 2022, asking the government to "act quickly to eliminate anything that could constitute a danger.”

The Cabinet, in turn, ordered the Lebanese Army to secure the materials and remove them immediately.

Mawlawi’s actions frustrated Attieh, "If the State wants to do its job, it should contact foreign countries to evacuate these materials,” he said. "You can't ask EDL to evacuate so-called hazardous materials when the institution is in tatters,” he told L’Orient-Le Jour.

However, EDL did seek to get rid of these materials in 2021 — even before Mawlawi notified Cabinet — "to calm people's apprehensions," Attieh admits. In February of that year, EDL signed a private contract with the German company CombiLift, represented by Tecmo SAL, for the disposal of the hazardous materials. According to Attieh, this process remains at a standstill because the Environment Ministry has failed to respond to EDL’s request for its approval, which is necessary before the disposal can take place. Tecmo SAL has corroborated this version of events.

On June 4, Salim Sayegh, the Kataeb MP for Kesrouan, the district in which the power plant is located, wrote an open letter to Mikati deploring the Environment Ministry’s withholding of authorization for CombiLift to move forward with disposing the toxic waste, adding that the company had warned it would terminate the contract due to the delay.

Sayegh said caretaker Environment Minister Nasser Yassin told him that the information the ministry had received regarding the disposal was not complete and was unable to serve as an adequate basis for an export authorization.

The June 15 Cabinet decision reiterated this, saying the Environment Ministry “awaits the complete export file from the Energy and Water Ministry for approval.”

Meanwhile, caretaker Energy and Water Minister Walid Fayad has insisted to L’Orient Today that it’s not up to him to deal with the hazardous waste that may or may not exist at Zouk.

“This is under EDL’s responsibility,” he said. “They need to dispose of it.”

‘Matter of life and death’

L’Orient-Le Jour contacted Yassin, who denied any responsibility for the delay.

“I’ve already explained to Sayegh, EDL and everyone concerned that there is no file at the ministry, only messages sent since 2021, when the company in question was working to export certain hazardous materials from the Port of Beirut and that Zouk’s stocks were to be included,” he explained.

Yassin has asked EDL to establish a new contract for the disposal of the toxic materials at Zouk plant. “If a file is sent to me, I will finalize it as quickly as possible,” he told L'Orient-Le Jour.

Seeing the problem become mired in bureaucratic back-and-forth, Sayegh requested Mikati intervene, as it is “a matter of life and death for local residents.”

Jounieh residents continue to push for action. Dozens held a sit-in on May 31 in front of the power plant in protest of what they described as the negligence and corruption that continue to pose a constant threat to their health and safety.

The sit-in was attended by Sayegh, as well as MPs Melhem Khalaf and Najat Saliba, who toured the facility shortly after the protest started. Speaking afterward, Saliba said the hazardous materials need to be removed “as quickly as possible, as they represent a potential risk for the population and for Zouk power plant employees.”

‘Close the windows’

It’s not just hydrochloric acid that could be putting Jounieh residents at risk. A 2018 Greenpeace study on air pollution ranked Jounieh as the fifth most polluted city in the region and the 23rd in the world. The international environmental organization specifically named Zouk power plant as one of the two main culprits, the other being heavy traffic, making Jounieh a “nitrogen dioxide hotspot.” Nitrogen dioxide is a reddish-brown gas — the result of burning coal, oil, natural gas and diesel — that causes chronic lung disease.

A former resident of Zouk Mikael, Zeina Matar, told AFP in 2022 that the walls of her balconies were blackened from the smoke, and her laundry, hung out to dry, would be damaged by toxic gasses emanating from the plant. She finally moved, after losing four relatives to respiratory illness.

"Whenever they refill the station with fuel oil, we would close the windows," Zeina said. "The smell is unbearable."

Reporting contributed by Malek Jadah, Suzanne Baaklini and Wael Taleb.

The threat of toxic materials in Lebanon became a particularly sensitive subject after the country suffered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. The Beirut port blast on Aug. 4, 2020, was the result of mishandled ammonium nitrate, incorrectly stored and neglected despite warnings filed directly with the Public Works Ministry. With the onset of war in Gaza and subsequently in...