Egypt eases restrictions on importation and burning of coal, environmentalists warn of implications

Rights groups and environmentalists warn the Egyptian government’s recent easing of restrictions on the import and industrial use of coal threatens the health of the population and the environment.

“The Environment Ministry continues to promote the use of one of the most heavily polluting fuels on the face of the planet,” Ahmed al-Droubi, coordinator of the Egyptians Against Coal campaign, told Mada Masr.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) released a statement on Sunday criticizing the government’s March 15 amendments to the executive bylaws regulating Egypt’s environment protection law, arguing the lack of regulations and ambiguity in phrasing indicates a “clear tendency to degrade the application of environmental and health protection standards” and champions the import and use of coal.

Coal is being heavily used by the cement industry, Droubi explains, and has to be imported from South Africa, Eastern Europe, the US and China, as Egypt has minimal coal deposits of its own.

The new bylaws decrease regulations pertaining to the storage of coal near residential areas. Previous regulations stipulated that coal storage centers must be located at least three kilometers away from residential quarters. The new bylaws reduce this distance to 1.5 kilometers for “reasons of necessity.”

These reasons are not stated, EIPR says. “This is not the first time the administration has tried to justify deterioration in environmental protection standards for reasons of ‘necessity’ and ‘public interest’.”

Many cement factories in Egypt are already in close proximity to residential areas, Droubi says, highlighting the detrimental effect the burning of coal has on public health. “Coal is responsible for a number of respiratory and circulatory health conditions, and affects reproductive systems and other bodily functions,” he asserts.

A provision in the previous law mandating the installation of windbreak panels, in accordance with international standards in open areas to prevent coal dust from circulating, was also removed from the new bylaws, with a caveat that they should be used at the discretion of the Environment Ministry.

Although the new stipulations require coal be stored in specially-designed warehouses and transported in custom sacks, EIPR argues the details of what kind of material these sacks should be made of and other important factors are ambiguous. Without properly sealed containers, coal dust may be dispersed along roads, railways and waterways, Droubi points out.

The government’s amendments do stipulate the use of sprinkler systems in coal storage facilities and the humidity levels in such spaces, to reduce chances of ignition, as well as the installation of coal dust sensors at river docks. These stipulations do not apply to seaports, however, which Droubi says is an issue, as many people live and work close to the sea.

“The public has zero access to information regarding the levels of emissions from coal and cement factories. People have a right to know about the quality of the air they are breathing,” Droubi says.

While coal is still heavily used in industry in Egypt — mainly in the cement, glass and fertilizer industries — the government is moving away from plans for additional coal-powered electricity stations, at least until 2022-27, a move Droubi attributes more to the decreasing cost of renewable energy than environmental consciousness in government.

Other countries, such as the UK, China and the Ukraine are working on plans to phase out their dependence on coal. The US has been moving away from coal use for years, but environmentalists fear US President Donald Trump may reverse these policies.

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