Despite Millions in Grants, Dust Fall from the Abu Zaabal Factory Continues to Cause Respiratory Problems
12 November 2023
“As soon as the machinery in the factory begins working, I run in the opposite direction as fast as I can trying to catch my breath and breathe in some clean air, free from black dust.” This is how Mahmoud Abu Omar describes his daily struggle with the toxic emissions of Abu Zaabal Fertilizer and Chemical Company.
Abu Omar, a guard in a laundry facility directly across from Abu Zaabal factory, suffers from chronic coughing, difficulty breathing and cardio problems. Doctors have diagnosed him as a chronic cardiothoracic patient.
This is a common condition among the residents of Abu Zaabal village in the Qalyubiah Governorate, 37 KM from Cairo, due to the various sources of air pollution in the village.
This Investigative story sheds light on the excessive concentration of dust emissions of Abu Zaabal’s Fertilizers and Chemical Company, exceeding the maximum limit allowed by the Ministry of Environment. The investigation also sheds light on the company’s use of the Ismailia Canal as a dumpsite for its industrial waste without treatment, which damages the agricultural products irrigated by the canal, all despite the fact that the company has been receiving several internationally funded grants from the Egyptian Ministry of Environment.
Abu Zaabal Village Map
Abu Omar’s health is deteriorating day by day. He suffered several seizures which led to him losing consciousness, as a result of inhaling the black dust emissions of the factory smokestacks which also form a blanket of smog over the neighboring village of Ezbet Samak, located within the village of Abu Zaabal.
Abu Zaabal Fertilizers and Chemical Company was established in 1947, and specializes in the production of phosphate fertilizers and other chemical products such as Calcium Phosphate Sulfur and agricultural phosphoric gypsum, used in the reclamation of alkali lands. The company also produces dicalcium phosphate, degreasers, rust and corrosion inhibitors, and liquid fertilizers.
The company was privatized in 2002, after 100% of its shares were bought by Polyserve Fertilizer and Chemical Company, after which it became an Egyptian shareholding company in early 2004. Until the publication of the this report, the company’s Chairman is Dr. Sherif El-Gabali, an Egyptian trade and industry businessman and former member of the Policies Committee in the National Party of Egypt. He is also the son of the former Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Mustafa El-Gabali, and brother of the former Minister of Health, Dr. Hatem El- Gabali.
The color of buildings in the Ezbet Al Samak village across from Abu Zaabal’s factory has turned yellow, even the elementary school’s original pink colored walls has taken on a yellow hue. The school’s sign at the entrance of the village is barely visible due to the factory’s chemically laden dust particles.
Chemist Nour Mustapha states that the manufacturing processes of fertilizers emit certain gases such as Sulfur Oxide and Ammonia which deposit on building facades, changing their colors to yellow.
Badawi Al-Sayyed, an engineer in the private sector says that his father used to be a worker in the Abu Zaabal factory until retiring at the age of 60 with chronic respiratory allergies as is the case with most of the area’s residents.
Al-Sayyed adds that the factory uses rock substances from the mines of Al- Sebaiya in the city of Aswan. The substances are a yellow sulfur from which concentrated sulfuric acid is extracted and is used as a main ingredient in the manufacturing of fertilizers and other chemical industries. The burning of these sulfuric substances produces sulfuric emissions and smoke that damage agricultural crops and buildings alike.
Video of the yellow school and buildings surrounding the factory
Abu Zaabal for Fertilizers and Chemical Company… Continuous Environmental Hazards
Since the eighties, the company has faced several environmental challenges regarding the harmful emissions that exceed legal limits, especially after the issuance of Environmental Law No. 4 for the year 1994.
These problems persisted until the company became a shareholding company, according to law no. 109, in July, 2004.
In August, 2004. The company made its first attempt at environmental compatibility seeking the help of the Central Lab Unit of Ein Shams University to carry out the necessary environmental measurements to determine the factory’s actual environmental position.
The results of the environmental measurements showed that dust and gas emissions in several production sites did exceed the allowed legal limits.
In January, 2007, the company submitted an application to participate in the stage 2 of the “Environmental Pollution Abatement Program.”
A Lost Grant
Egypt’s Ministry of Environment announced that, between 2007 and 2016, stage 2 of the Environmental Pollution Abatement Program (EPAP) will support industrial facilities in their quest to achieve environmental compatibility.
The program is based on granting funding packages to the public and private sectors in order to fight pollution in the most affected areas, improve the internal environmental conditions of industrial facilities, provide suitable environmental tools, and improve the role and competency of inspection procedures in various industrial establishments. The program is funded by the French Development Agency, the European Investment Bank, the German Development Bank and the Egyptian government.
The Egyptian Ministry of Environment has placed several criteria and conditions to be met before receiving this funding, one of which is the lack of environmental compatibility within the establishment, and the need to decrease by at least 50%, certain environmental pollutants.
The Abu Zaabal Fertilizer and Chemical Company applied for the funding of three projects in order to achieve environmental compatibility and decrease the pollution caused by their plant. It received all required official approvals.
The total cost was 49 million USD, and the Environmental Pollution Abatement Program covered around 30% of the funds allocated for all three projects.
The Abu Zaabal Fertilizer and Chemical Company was listed as one of the companies benefitting from the Environmental Pollution Abatement Program, carried out between 2007 and 2016, according to reports issued by Egypt’s Ministry of Environment.
Project 1: Rehabilitation of the phosphoric acid plant
The overall cost of this project reached around 29 million USD, of which the Environmental Pollution Abatement Program covered 8 million USD.
The aims of the project included the rehabilitation of the phosphoric acid units, in order to increase productivity and decrease the amount of emitted dust and gases to the legal limits. This would be achieved by replacing some of the older worn out equipment and machinery like filters, washers, pumps and heat exchangers.
Project 2: The renewal of the “Newman” factory
This project included a Triple Super Phosphate factory and aimed to decrease the amount of emitted dust to more acceptable levels and increase productivity through the use of a distribution control system for production and emissions.
The project’s overall cost reached 5 million USD, of which 2 million USD was covered by the Environmental Pollution Abatement Program.
Project 3: The Renewal of Phosphate Mills
This project aimed at installing and operating newer phosphate rock mills, replacing the 40 years old ones.
In the status report released by the Ministry of Environment on its website, the company admitted that its older mills were in bad condition, and were causing massive amounts of dust emissions, and that the newer mills would help in decreasing the amount of such pollution.
The overall cost of this third project reached 15 million USD, of which 4.5 million USD was covered by the Environmental Pollution Abatement Program.
Despite the company’s claims that it aims to decrease pollution to the allowed legal limits after receiving funding for the three projects, its factories continue to emit dust and smoke, as stated by the residents of the area and confirmed by the images captured during the plants’ production processes.
Chemist, Nour Mustapha, states that carrying out the three projects for the Abu Zaabal Fertilizer and Chemical Company would have decreased the amount of harmful emissions to the allowed legal limits, and there was even a possibility that smoke emissions would disappear completely.
We took a field trip to the area surrounding the Abu Zaabal Fertilizer Company, during which we documented the damage done to the village’s yellow dust covered agricultural crops, which had to be destroyed due to the harmful chemical substances and emissions. This is in addition to the chronic respiratory problems reported by the residents of the area.
Polluted Industrial Waste
During our field trip, we noticed the factory’s industrial waste being dumped into the Ismailiah Canal which is used by farmers to irrigate their lands.
We also took a sample from the factory’s waste water to have it tested by an accredited governmental laboratory. Test results indicated excessive amounts of aluminum in the canal’s water, exceeding 201 g/liter, which would adversely affect the growth cycle of various plants and crops.
Commenting on the lab’s test results, Dr. Hisham Suroor, Professor of physical and environmental chemistry says: “The percentage of Aluminum present in the sample is quite high. Its presence in such high concentrations transforms it into poisonous Aluminum Oxide which causes Alzheimer’s and several types of cancer, such as breast cancer.
As for the need for Aluminum in the production of fertilizers, Suroor explains that the liquid waste emitted by fertilizer factories comes from different sources which include operational processes for by-products like the cleaning of machinery, especially those containing metallic aluminum.
Suroor adds that the waste water with high concentrations of Aluminum is used to irrigate the adjacent farms and the agricultural soil stores the active aluminum, which hinders the growth of plants and crops.
Disposing of Industrial Waste without Treatmen
Tankers trickle into the Ismailiah Canal across from the Abu Zaabal Fertilizer and Chemcial Company carrying rock substances transferred from Al Subaiyah mines in the city of Aswan. Through a huge metal carrier extending from the factory to the canal, these sulfur rocks are transferred into the factory to be melted in ovens to undergo the condensation and cooling processes.
The cooling process depends on the Ismailiah canal’s water which is later re-pumped into the canal full of residual matters, without any treatment procedures.
The Dilemma of Crop Destruction
Farmer Alaa’ Bayoumi sadly inspects the destroyed crops of his small land near the fertilizer factory.
Bayoumi is a father of five and also supports his wife and mother, thus depends on the produce of his small land which he inherited from his family. He also lives on a one thousand Egyptian Pound pension which barely covers the basic needs of his 7 dependents.
Bayoumi sadly says: “We own the land but are unable to utilize it properly,” pointing to the rice plants that stopped growing more than 100 days after their seeds had been sown.
The 50 year old farmer blames the fertilizer factory for burning and destroying his crops four times as a result of its dust emissions which cover his land and produce.
In this regard, Dr. Hisham Suroor, Professor of environmental and physical chemistry in the Plant Protection Research Institute, states that the dust filled with sulfur deposits reacts with water vapor in the air and burns plants and crops.
Bayoumi is not the only farmer suffering from the destruction of his crops. We have managed to meet with 43 year old Saeed Khaled, as he tore the damaged corn crops of his land with his bare hands due to the factory’s dust emissions.
He angrily states, “I rented the land 5 years ago to plant it and each year the crops are burned because of the factory,” also indicating that he spent and lost every penny he owned on his efforts to cultivate the land.
Continued Pollution and Lack of Control
As soon as stage 2 of the Environmental Compatibility Project for the Abu Zaabal Fertilizer and Chemical Company came to an end, the parliamentary representative of the Qalyubiah Governorate tabled a query regarding the continued pollutant emissions of the fertilizer factory.
The matter reached its peak when on January 8th, 2018, the residents woke up to the strong smell of emissions that filled the village and the monitoring station of Abu Zaabal wrote an official letter to the Department of Occupational Health reporting the presence of Carbon and Carbon Dioxide in the air of the area.
Later, former representative Mohammad Sidqi Haykal tabled a request to the former Head of Parliament for the suspension of all the factory’s production processes, but unfortunately received no response until the publication of this report.
Al-Sayyed and several of the residents we met say that the factory operates at night to avoid control measures, emitting harmful smoke and gases. The residents have used social media outlets to publish images showing the emissions coming from the factory at night .
Using satellite imagery, we matched these images to the location of the factory to confirm that the emissions were from the Abu Zaabal factory itself.
Google Earth image archives also show that smoke continued to rise from the plant even after the end of stage 2 of the Environmental Pollution Abatement Program. We also took new photos showing the heavy smoke emitted by the factory.
The smoke emissions drove the Minister of Environment, Yasmine Fouad, to quickly withdraw from the factory’s vicinity before completing her inspection tour, because she could not withstand the heavy dust and smoke.
Resident complaints also led representative, Radwan Al-Zayyati, to table a query regarding the factory’s compliance with environmental regulations, especially with the rise in respiratory diseases among residents of the surrounding area, three of which were confirmed.
Dr. Ihab Abd Al-Mo’ti, Pulmonology Consultant at the Egyptian Qasr Al-Ainy Hospital, lists the harmful gaseous substances being emitted from fertilizer factories like Ammonia, Urea, Sulfuric Acid, Methanol and other compounds that harm the lungs and cause diseases such as asthma and silicosis which causes the lungs to stop working.
It was difficult to perform tests analyzing the air surrounding the factory in light of our inability to acquire a license to release air pollution measuring equipment.
We then moved to the agricultural land which lies on the eastern side of the factory to examine their crops for dust residue from the factory.
With the help of the residents of Ezbet Samak, we acquired a sample of their plants and crops. Analysis by a specialized lab showed high levels of iron residue in some plants reaching 337.30 grams.
Agricultural Engineer, Mohammad Abdul Kareem, says that the allowed iron limit in plants should not exceed 72 m/g, adding that such excess would cause ‘plant toxicity’ leading to the destruction of Chlorophyll, hence disrupting plant physiological processes.
He also states that the rise in the rate of iron in crops decreases production, because plants lack the important elements they need to grow.
As the harvest season passes, Bayyoumi and Khaled’s watch helpless their destroyed crops while respiratory diseases among residents of Abu Zaabal continue to rise. At the same time, the Ministry of Environment announced in its ‘ 2022 Harvest Report’ that it will continue to fund Abu Zaabal Fertilizer and chemical Company to carry out several environmental compatibility projects.
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