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Lebanon Begins to Clean Up Civil War Legacy: Toxic Waste

High in the mountains north of Beirut, in an otherwise idyllic pastureland, sheep and goats graze much of the year. In winter, snow blankets the landscape, and skiers take to slopes.

Below ground, however, lurk unseen rusting barrels of toxic chemicals slowly penetrating the water supply.

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During Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, the Christian "Lebanese Forces" militia, which controlled one-quarter of the country, routinely hid and buried barrels of toxic waste in sparsely populated mountain areas such as Ayoun es Simane.

Today, tales of sheep and goats found dead after drinking from contaminated springs and streams are surfacing. One Lebanese paper has chronicled how villagers who live downstream from Ayoun es Simane were poisoned after eating dairy products from mountain-raised sheep.

Amid the chaos of Lebanon's civil war, various militias were able to raise money by accepting such waste. There was no bigger authority to stop them.

Only now is Lebanon starting to develop civilian structures that can measure and begin to deal with this toxic threat.

A 1995 report by Lebanon's environment ministry says much of the country's water is unsafe to drink. Moussa Naameh, an irrigation expert at the American University of Beirut, says as much as 70 percent of Lebanon's watersheds are polluted from biological and chemical waste.

But Lebanon's pollution woes did not end with the close of the civil war. Fouad Hamdan, an activist for the environmental-action group Greenpeace, claims toxic dumping is still a problem.

"Importers in Lebanon and other third-world countries," he says, "have the bad habit of importing chemicals, medicines, pesticides, and paints, which are beyond or just about to reach their expiration dates and have become very toxic." Lebanon's parliament has recently drafted a law forbidding this practice.

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In the past six months, shipments of toxic chemicals from Germany, Belgium, and Canada have kept officials busy.

One case still lingers from 1987, when several thousand barrels of toxic chemicals arrived from Milan, Italy.

Pierre Malichev, a professor at Beirut's French medical school, says businessmen associated with the Lebanese Forces militia received money in exchange for the waste, despite the fact that officials tried to turn away the ship.

Dr. Malichev insists the ship that was supposed to carry the bulk of the waste back to Italy was later scuttled at sea. Italy denies the charge. But the ship never turned up in Italy, or anywhere else.

"The Italians are blackmailing Lebanon," Mr. Hamdan says. "They are telling us either you ... dispose of the toxic waste on your own or you don't get aid."

Lebanon is currently receiving $430 million in aid from the European Union, most of which comes from Italy.

Malichev also claims he found barrels of Agent Orange defoliant near Beirut. Greenpeace's Hamdan says Lebanese importers often receive $5 per barrel to dispose of such toxic waste.

"This is a big bargain to industrialized nations," he says. "It often costs more than $25 a barrel to break them down and dispose of them in European waste-disposal plants."

Environment Minister Akram Shehayeb has studied most dump sites. "We are looking for solutions," he says.

Lebanon's worst enemy could be its own citizens. "Lebanese people have absolutely no civic sense," says one government official.

"Individuals dump their household garbage anywhere," he laments, "so how can you expect companies to behave differently?"

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