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Fuheis residents suffer cement factory pollution

[Jordan] With the chimneys of the town's cement factory behind him, a construction worker lifts a sack of cement in Fuheis.   [Date picture taken: 11/25/2006] Maria Font de Matas/IRIN
With the chimneys of the town's cement factory behind him, a construction worker lifts a sack of cement in Fuheis.
Once known to Jordanians as a beautiful town set in green mountains and with a pleasant climate, Fuheis is quickly losing its renown as it reels under clouds of dust and chemicals emanating from the town's cement factory.

The problem is most visible during the dry months of summer, from April to September, as surrounding orchards become coated with layers of cement dust. With the arrival of the winter rainy season, the grey-looking trees are washed clean, but residents’ health problems are far from over.

Saad Samaan, 52, returned to Fuheis five years ago after spending most of his life working abroad. His four-year-old son Ghassan suffers from acute asthma. Samaan is certain the factory is to blame.

"None of my other children who were born and raised abroad developed asthma or anything similar. Ghassan is the only one who was born here. I heard many stories of children developing problems in breathing but I did not think it would hit one of my children," he said.

Medical staff at the town's government-run health centre say cases of severe allergies, asthma and skin problems are on the rise.

"I worked in many parts of the country, but I noticed the rate of children suffering from respiratory problems is higher than elsewhere in the kingdom," said a doctor at the centre, who insisted on remaining anonymous because he was not permitted to talk to the press.

Fuheis is a small town of 25,000 residents, 10 km west of Amman. There are no official figures or independent studies on the magnitude of the health problems caused by Jordan Cement Factories Company, but in a small town like this, residents are certain they are paying the price for the country's construction boom.

Town is dying slowly

"The town is dying slowly. More people are suffering from skin and lung diseases due to the dust they sniff and that touches their skin," said Fakhri Escander, representative of Fuheis in the Jordanian parliament. He criticised French company La Farge, which holds majority shares in the company, saying it was only interested in making profits without considering the consequences of what it does on the environment.

"La Farge is implementing advanced environmental procedures in its factories around Europe. When a truck leaves the factory it is properly sealed, even washed, so cement dust does not fly around. But it does not seem to care in Jordan," Escander said.

The factory has been at the heart of a dispute between residents and the government since it was established in 1954, but its existence was tolerated because of its limited production capacity at the time and because of its contribution to the local economy by providing jobs.

A sudden surge in production in the nineties when the company became privately owned put town residents on high alert. They began demanding an immediate improvement in environmental conditions at the facility, including the proper sealing of loaded trucks and a more controlled use of dynamite in mining. They also sought to have the factory relocated to a desolate site in the vast Jordanian desert by 2010.

Town residents say the government is not doing enough to force the company to implement developed environmentally friendly procedures.

"We have been hearing the same promises from the government for years. The town is becoming a hub for disease while the government is watching," said Jeris Saman, a 55-year-old shopkeeper who lives beside the factory.

Adib Akroush, head of the National Society for the Protection of Nature, said emissions of toxic gas from the factory exceed the limits set by the World Health Organisation and violate the laws and regulations of the country’s National Authority for Resources.

Turning a blind eye

He criticised the government for "turning a blind eye to the suffering of citizens" while at the same time called on the government to "force the factory to apply modern methods in mining and chemical processing friendly to nature”.

The government said it was adamant to put an end to the standoff between the factory and town residents.

Officials from the Ministry of Environment said on completion of a feasibility study to determine the economic, environmental and social effects of relocating the factory, the government would make a decision.

However, Essa Shboul, spokesman for the environment ministry, said he did not know how when the feasibility study would start or how long it would take to complete.

"We understand how grave the problem is and Fuheis residents have all the right to demand a clean environment but they must understand this [the company] is an investment worth hundreds of millions that can not be moved over a night," Shboul said.

The cement company is also aware of the harm it is doing. Company officials said they allocated $30 million on projects that would reduce emissions to acceptable levels, including a modern filtering system, and planting trees to absorb the dust.

Rashib Ben Yakhluf, general manager of the company, said that with the new filter they were adopting a production policy in line with local and international regulations on the safety of environment.

But residents remain sceptical about the benefit of the filter, saying the factory remains a major source of pollution to their hilly town.

"If you take a look at the dust coming out from the factory, you would not notice any difference. Mining has also increased lately which has caused more dust to fly around and pollute the area," said Escander.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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