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Two weeks ago, a giant mountain of coal was erected in the port of Alexandria. Uncovered, and barely separated from the surrounding, densely populated residential neighborhood by a flimsy sheet of metal, the coal pile freely scattered its ashes and hazardous particles into the air.

Lafarge, one of Egypt’s most profitable cement multinationals, did not wait for the government’s approval to ship in this coal, at a time when debates are raging as to whether the government would (or should) approve the coal import.

A few weeks before its downfall, ousted President Mohamed Morsi’s government announced its intention to import coal to power Egypt’s cement industry, due to insufficient and irregular natural gas supplies.

Since then, industrialists and environmentalists have been in constant, heated discussions to figure out the plan’s feasibility. Environment Minister Laila Iskandar updated Mada this week on the latest developments on the coal issue, and explained that her ministry has met on seven different occasions with the cement industry.

“We agreed that each group would conduct studies on the feasibility of coal as a source of fuel for cement kilns, and then we would regroup and exchange the data we have come up with and discuss them,” she says.

When Iskandar realized that the multinational had illegally imported coal and started using it in two factories without obtaining the requested EEAA approval, she started a legal process.

“A violation report was issued and a fine will follow,” she asserts, “although I doubt that this fine will make a dent in this multinational’s budget.”

Repeated attempts by Mada to contact Lafarge Egypt’s media office and headquarters for a statement on this issue have failed.

Due to its limited mandate, the Ministry of Environmental Affairs (MoEA) only has the ability to fine violators and refuse to issue coal import permits until safety measures are put in place. It does not, however, have the power to block the final decision, which will ultimately be taken by the prime minister.

According to Medhat Stefanos, chairman of the Cement Association, the cement industry’s need for coal imports is more pressing than ever.

“Ninety percent of the world’s cement [factories] use coal as a raw material,” he claims, adding that using natural gas for this industry is wasteful. Natural gas is only recommended for petrochemical and fertilizer plants, which use it as a raw material, he explains.

For the past two years, the cement industry has experienced a decline in production. Suez Cement, one of the main players in the country’s cement industry, suffered a 20 percent loss in production capacity since the onset of the shortages, and projects a 30 percent loss in 2013.

When questioned on the ongoing discussions between the industry and the MoEA, Stefanos claims that the environmental authorities have failed to present valid environmental and economic arguments to halt the coal imports.

“And at the same time, they are still not approving its use by the industry, although we keep explaining how coal won’t create higher emissions than the current ones, and may even reduce them,” he asserts. “What people often forget is that the cement industry uses coal both as an energy source and as an additive, and that fly ashes are trapped in the kilns and introduced in the cement to improve its quality,” thus potentially reducing emissions.

Iskandar says that “there are already repeated violations with natural gas. Leakages are responsible for diseases! So can you imagine the amount of the health bill with coal?”

The minister understands that the cement industry is considering importing coal because it is cheap, compared to other fuel options. But after evaluating the different side costs adding up on the coal bill, she considers it to be a “colossal investment.”

“If you add up the infrastructure to upgrade the ports, the transportation system, the kilns conversion, the emission control technology, the treatment of waste, the health cost, the climate change bill, it’s doubtful that this is an economical choice,” Iskandar argues.

Amr Ali, the executive director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection Conservation Association (HEPCA), is very involved in the ongoing discussions around coal.

“Do you know how the 8 million tons of coal are planned to be transported throughout the country? By trucks! This is insane, we don’t have proper roads or even a large enough diesel-powered truck fleet to carry such a huge amount of coal,” he contends.

For Ali, any hope for a large scale adoption of renewable energy is going down the drain, as he thinks coal imports are inevitable.

“What’s worse is that its use will not be limited to the cement industry. All industries, once the infrastructure is ready, will switch to coal,” he says.

Ali characterizes the coal import issue as “the biggest corruption scheme in Egypt’s history,” a claim he backs up with the Ministry of Electricity’s recent announcement that it would use some of the imported coal to power government-owned electricity plants, thus shifting the responsibility from the private sector to the public sector.

From a strictly environmental point of view, the wide-scale use of coal has many implications. First of all, coal combustion adds more carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere per unit of heat energy than any other fossil fuel.  But other air toxins issued from coal-operated factories can also damage the environment and undermine public health.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is considered the most problematic, as these emissions are directly linked to acid rain and the formation of haze and smog. Nitrogen oxides (NOX) emissions, which are fine particles, can cause smog formation and various respiratory diseases. Mercury, a potent neurotoxin, can be transmitted through maternal blood to the foetus, and cause reduced neurological activity in children.

Ports located on both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea will be constructed or upgraded to be able to handle the huge discharges of coal, and chances are that huge quantities of soot will be deposed on Egypt’s coral reefs, which are a huge touristic attraction. In a previous interview with Mada, Amr Ali blamed the ongoing destruction of the country’s coral reefs on phosphate dust exported from Red Sea ports and deposited in the water.

Coal residues can seep in the soil, proving detrimental to agricultural yield. They can leak into surface and groundwater as well, causing morbidity to livestock, wildlife and serious harm to humans.

According to some of the stakeholders involved in the coal discussion, the process is accelerating, and in the coming weeks an official decision should be announced regarding the large-scale importation of coal. But before an official authorization is granted, a proper environmental impact assessment and an economic development study must be conducted.

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Louise Sarant