On June 17, in Mansourieh, the last 2 km power line link went live in the 369 km, 220 kilovolt (kv) loop that runs from the south of the country up to the north, out to the Bekaa Valley, and connects Lebanon’s network to Syria. For 17 years, the government has been trying to close this loop, with this latest move prompted by attempts to implement the new electricity plan adopted in April. Mansourieh residents, however, have been protesting the construction for years, citing potential health risks, specifically a possible relation to increased childhood leukemia.
Minister of Energy and Water Nada Boustani tells Executive that completing the loop will increase current carrying capacities on the network as a whole and increase the network’s stability. The government’s new electricity plan seems to have provided impetus to finally complete this last link of the “electrical highway” that connects the country. Ramzi Dobeissy, the head of the high-voltage transmission lines department at Lebanon’s public electricity utility, Electricité du Liban (EDL), says that the 220 kv loop—including the Mansourieh link—is the “backbone of the Lebanese network.” At present, the link is needed to inject power from the main power plants in the north and south toward Beirut and its suburbs, he says.
The importance of this loop raises questions as to why it has taken so long to complete. Successive governments have attempted to close the Mansourieh link since 2002, but according to Dobeissy, who has worked at EDL since 2005, the project was never fully implemented on the ground due to the protests of local residents. Until the link was completed in June, there had been piecemeal progress over the years—the final pylons were erected in Mansourieh in 2006, and a 2016 Council of Development and Reconstruction progress report noted that all had been completed bar the Mansourieh link, which it said would be done in 2016 “if all goes well”—but there was no official reason given for why these had not been successful.
For their part, these protestors tell Executive that their primary concerns are the potential for adverse health effects, as well as noise pollution, and safety concerns about having these lines overhead (the lines are at a minimum of 16 meters overheard to comply with EDL standards). The resident’s objections predate 2002 to 1997 when the original planned path of the lines changed, according to a map from that year that protesters showed Executive with the original straight path passing through then uninhabited land. Carole Ibrahim, a Mansourieh resident, tells Executive that when she bought her home in 1996, no plan existed for power lines to pass near it. For them, the original path remains a sticking point in their continued objection.
Mansourieh residents also tell Executive that construction workers entered their private property during construction, and they have filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Interior (MoI) and the Ministry of Energy and Water (MoEW) that aims to invalidate a decree that allowed for temporary occupation of private land to place installation equipment. Boustani told Executive that while she had read about the lawsuit, she had not yet received it. Executive spoke with a representative from the MoI but did not receive a response prior to publication.
For the government, closing the loop is one of the first steps in expanding transmission capabilities.
Boustani tells Executive that right of way payments and temporary access payments—compensation for the lines running overhead and money paid for workers to briefly access private property for installation—will be made to all residents in the path of the new power lines. The amount offered for these payments is confidential, but Dobeissy says that it depends on how close the power line is to the home and on the area itself. In 2012, the government had offered to buy 15-20 of the apartments set to run under the cable, but no residents accepted the offer. The prices, according to Dobeissy, were set to be near the original prices of the land.
Regarding health risks, Mansourieh residents and the MoEW, in combination with EDL, both cite studies that back their own perspective on the issue. The major health concern for the protestors is a potential link to childhood leukemia. One 2005 study conducted by Oxford University, often cited by these protestors, found that children living within close proximity to powerlines had an increased risk of leukemia, but the study’s author, Gerald Draper, admitted that the results were likely due to chance, with no causal mechanism found.
Other effects that protesters say are possible are anxiety, headaches, suicide, depression, and nausea; however, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that scientific evidence does not support a correlation between these symptoms and exposure to electromagnetic fields. Regarding leukemia, the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified extremely low-frequency magnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans. “WHO, in the absence of certainty of adverse health effects, recommends the adoption of prevention and avoidance of potential health risks,” reads a prepared statement Executive received from WHO.
Aside from the possible carcinogenic nature of the powerlines, there is debate over to how many microteslas—a unit that measures the strength of a magnetic field—humans can safely be exposed. Mounir Rached, who was a speaker at a May 24 press conference on the power lines under his capacity as a lecturer in energy studies at the American University of Beirut says—in agreement with other protesters—that the allowed limit should not exceed 0.4. This, however, is disputed by EDL, with Dobeissy pointing to studies conducted by Electricité de France and other EU countries that show that values exceeding 100 microteslas have not been proven to affect human health—according to EDL modeling, no more than 20 microteslas would reach the balcony of the nearest apartment.
To bury or not?
For the residents of Mansourieh, like Thomas el-Saad, the possibility that these lines could be carcinogenic is enough to ask that the government consider other options, such as underground installation. “The line is obviously very important for all of Lebanon, and nobody contests this,” he says. “Of course these lines must exist, but not around our homes, and it’s doable to do it beneath the earth.”
Protesters, alongside Rached, point to the existence of underground lines in Beirut as evidence that these lines exist in Lebanon and would be a viable alternative, but Boustani and Dobeissy say it is not feasible for technical reasons. In Beirut and Tripoli the lines must be underground because the density of buildings leaves no space to build pylons and string the cables, Dobeissy says. He adds that because the capacitance—the ratio of the change in an electric charge in a system to the corresponding change in its electric potential—of underground cables is 20-75 times more than overhead lines, it is very technically difficult to control voltage spikes—specifically during times of minimal demand—when utilizing underground cables over long distances, which could lead to risk of network collapse. Because of this, no more than 5 to 8 percent of a line should be located below ground, and with the 369 km loop, 5 percent equals 18.45 km that can safely be buried. He adds that Lebanon already exceeds this with about 13 percent of the lines, primarily in Beirut, being underground.
Dobeissy also says that installing underground lines can cost up to two-and-a-half to three times what it costs to install them overhead, for which he says estimated installation costs equal 450,000 euros/km ($503,000 at time of writing). Underground cost estimates were not completed for Mansourieh because the technical barriers rendered them unnecessary.
For the government, closing the loop is one of the first steps in expanding transmission capabilities. With the lines now live, protesters’ concerns about adverse health effects have not subsided, and many tell Executive that they will continue to organize and raise public awareness of their concerns. They say that they have started organizing with surrounding communities that have overhead lines to gain a larger foothold. And while Saad admitted that he feared the past protests would prove futile—and they did—he hopes that if they maintain momentum they can get the lines moved underground in the next 10 years. But with the percentage of the line buried already exceeding the maximum EDL tells Executive is acceptable, burying the Mansourieh lines seems like a distant possibility.