SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
On the coastline of Beirut, they're building out into the Mediterranean. It's land reclamation, like they do in a lot of places. But in this case, they are doing it to try to solve the country's trash crisis. They're dumping garbage into the sea. Some people worry it's a threat to fish stocks and the Mediterranean. NPR's Ruth Sherlock took to the water to check it out.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: It's a bright, beautiful day, and I'm on a small boat in the Mediterranean, just off the Lebanese coast. It should be idyllic, but there's an acrid smell that burns my throat.
CLAUDE JABRE: The stink is horrible. I wish the camera can take the smell. It's really horrible. It's unbelievable. The eyes hurt, and the throat hurts.
SHERLOCK: Claude Jabre is an activist with You Stink, a movement that developed in response to Lebanon's yearslong trash crisis. Garbage floats in the water around us. At one point, Jabre thinks he sees a turtle.
JABRE: See? This is a turtle. Oh, no. No. It's a tire (laughter). I thought it was a turtle. We have tires. And everything is in the sea, so the garbage is learning how to swim.
SHERLOCK: And along the coast in the water, there's a huge mound of trash and dirt. It's big enough for trucks to drive onto it and upend more loads of waste. It's what they call land reclamation, the process of adding to the country's coastline. We steer the boat in for a closer look.
You can see this kind of black liquid that's seeping out of this massive pile and into the water. And then there's bits of plastic. And the sea is just brown around us.
Showing us around is Lebanese fishermen Emilio Eid. He says fish stocks have dramatically declined since the project began.
What is the impact for your work?
EMILIO EID: This area - the fish all die because pollution.
SHERLOCK: It's become so bad, says Eid, that he and other fishermen have sued the developer. He says the project has destroyed their livelihoods. We talked back at the small fishing port where Eid has worked most of his life. Trucks loaded with garbage - plastic bottles, tires, syringes, clothes - rumble past, headed for the sea.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK DRIVING)
SHERLOCK: It was a picture of these trucks that brought this to the public's attention last summer. It caused a national controversy. On paper, the developer's plans do include efforts to limit pollution. For example, a barrier is meant to ring-fence the garbage sea fill. But in practice, the trash dumps began well before the real barrier was actually built.
The developer refused to speak with NPR. But Antoine Gebara, the mayor of Jdeideh, the Beirut municipality on whose coastline the project is partly happening, did agree to meet.
ANTOINE GEBARA: (Speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: He says, "yes, it's bad for the environment. But it's necessary."
GEBARA: (Through interpreter) To be honest, I know that there's something wrong with the way things are done on the site. But I'm also well aware that if I wanted to stop them, I'd risk having the garbage pile up in the streets.
SHERLOCK: The official plans are for this to become a landfill site. But environmentalists say it will fill up in a couple of years, and they suspect the ultimate aim is to turn this into expensive real estate, lucrative for developers and the politicians who back them. To my surprise, Gebara acknowledges that is part of the plan.
So this is about money more than the trash?
GEBARA: (Speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: "Of course," he answers. He cites other land reclamation projects that have brought massive financial capital. The project has angered environmental experts in Europe who worry about the Mediterranean Sea. Dr. Paul Johnston is an environmental scientist with Greenpeace in the United Kingdom.
PAUL JOHNSTON: I mean, it's just beggars belief really, to be honest. It really comes down to it being waste management from the Dark Ages - I mean, the whole ethic that if we've got to get rid of, we burn it, we bury it or we throw it in the sea.
SHERLOCK: He warns there are plastics and other toxins that will badly pollute the Mediterranean Sea.
JOHNSTON: Basically, what they appear to be doing here is taking a pretty undesirable landfill site and turning it into an even less desirable landfill site, which is destined, ultimately, to act as a big source of marine pollution.
SHERLOCK: Environmentalists in Lebanon, like Paul Abi Rached, the founder of the group TERRE Liban, are frustrated that foreign governments haven't done more to stop the project.
PAUL ABI RACHED: This is really the most important question, why all the Mediterranean countries are witnessing this humanity crime and natural crime and they didn't move.
SHERLOCK: The answer, say some Western diplomats who spoke without giving their names because this is sensitive, is connected to Lebanon's refugee problem. There are over a million Syrian refugees here. Governments fear a flood into Europe should Lebanon ever ask them to leave. So, the diplomats say, they're careful not to do anything that might upset the Lebanese - even in matters of trash. So environmentalist Rached calls for citizens to act.
RACHED: We, as citizens of this planet, of the Mediterranean Sea, let us make more pressure to save this beautiful sea.
SHERLOCK: And make sure Lebanon finds a way to deal with its trash on dry land.
Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.
(SOUNDBITE OF ZOE KEATING'S "ESCAPE ARTIST")
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