Radioactive waste is turning Tunisia’s coastline into a ‘mass grave’

State-owned fertiliser plants pump millions of tonnes of toxic material into the Mediterranean each year

The Groupe Chemique Tunisien factories pump radioative phosphogypsum, sulfuric acid and other toxic compounds into the sea, and flare noxious gases into the air as the produce fertilizer from Tunisia's main natural resource, phosphate. Erin Clare Brown / The National
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When the Xelo tanker sank off of Tunisia's south-eastern coast in April with a reported 750 tonnes of diesel on board, Mediterranean countries braced for an environmental disaster. Italy sent a rescue ship and specialised divers were called in to examine the Xelo's cargo hold. Breathless news reports detailed the attempts to extract any diesel left on board.

The ship turned out to be filled with sea water, but the international alarm was genuine, and genuinely bemusing to the residents of Gabes, the port city near where the Xelo went down.

"Honestly, I just laughed at the panic," said Khayreddine Debaya, an environmental activist. "You'd hear people joking on the street that they'd rather take a shower in diesel than swim in the water here."

His droll response came not from cynicism, but an acute understanding of scale. "You want an environmental disaster?" he said. "How about the 17,000 tonnes of radioactive waste Groupe Chimique Tunisien pumps into the sea every single day?"

Over more than 50 years, an ecological and health crisis – orders of magnitude larger than any threat posed by the Xelo – has been festering in Tunisia. Groupe Chimique Tunisien, or GCT, the state-owned company that runs the company's phosphate processing plants, have for decades sent radioactive wastewater into the sea and released noxious fumes into the air.

This flow of pollutants has continued unabated with little oversight or regulation from the Tunisian government, which depends on the industry’s paltry revenue to bolster faltering foreign currency reserves.

Despite the outcry from from locals, whose health and livelihoods have suffered, and pleas from the company's leadership to make the run-down plants more efficient, safer and environmentally sound, little has been done to mitigate the disastrous effects of producing fertiliser that keeps crops in China, India and Europe green.

The Gabes Oasis previously extended all the way to the coast. The remaining palms have turned a sickly yellow-gray. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Oasis blues

Growing up in the Chenini Oasis in Gabes in the 1960s, Mabrouk Jebri lived a bucolic life in the Mediterranean's only maritime oasis, which for centuries had been an important trade post on sea and trans-Saharan routes.

"Before Groupe Chimique arrived, we used to have a swimming pool in the oasis, fed by the spring and shaded by the date palms and orange trees," he said.

In the oasis, which stretches all the way to the sea, families grew fruit and vegetables in the fertile soil alongside the region's unique blue-green date palms. What they didn't grow, they'd buy from the fishermen on the docks nearby.

"We would go to the beach and watch the fishermen struggle to pull in nets of sardines or massive prawns," Mr Jebri said.

The Gulf of Gabes served as crucial breeding and nursery grounds for about 300 species of fish and supported an entire industry.

Mabrouk Jebri grew up in the Chenini Oasis in Gabes and used to swim in the spring-fed pool. Erin Clare Brown / The National

In 1972, the Tunisian government created a new industrial centre on the far edge of the oasis, where it met the sea. The centrepiece of the development was a plant that would process phosphate-rich rock, mined near the Algerian border, into merchant grade phosphoric acid to be used in fertiliser in Europe and Asia.

Mr Jebri said residents in Gabes greeted this first plant, now a part of GCT, with enthusiasm. It brought several hundred higher-paying jobs and boosted supporting industries in the area.

But as the trains carrying the phosphate rolled into town and the factory came online, the water in the oasis began to recede, diverted to the industrial sector. The swimming pool in the oasis dried up, the air began to smell foul and the palms that once bore sweet dates turned a lurid yellow-grey.

"The oasis was a bellwether for the whole area," Mr Jebri said.

Each day, thousands of tonnes of phosphate-rich rock arrive via train from Gafsa, the mining region on the edge of the Sahara. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Radioactive beach

Extracting and refining phosphate is a dirty and water-intensive process that requires strong acids to extract the pure mineral from rock, producing large amounts of solid and liquid waste.

To produce a single tonne of fertiliser-grade phosphoric acid, GCT uses four tonnes of phosphate-rich rock and three tonnes of sulphuric acid, which it creates by combining imported sulphur granules with fresh water drawn from the oasis.

The by-products – a combination of acids, a mildly radioactive compound called phosphogypsum and trace amounts of heavy metals – are then pumped into the sea.

Anouar Derbel, GCT's regional plant director in Gabes, said that decision was made the year the plant opened, "long before anyone understood what it meant".

A crust of radioactive phosphogypsum has formed on the bank of the GCT's wastewater canal. Erin Clare Brown / The National

The consequences of that decision have been catastrophic for the local environment.

The wastewater canal that leaves the GCT factories churns hot, black bubbles to the surface as it swiftly flows for a few hundred metres into the sea. Plants along the canal's edge are bleached white by the acidic water, which registers a pH as low as 4.5, similar to acid rain. Pebbles of sulphur mingle with a black crust of phosphogypsum that covers the once-white beach for more than a kilometre.

On a recent evening, a flock of plovers scurried along the radioactive crust and into the nearly opaque water, looking for small fish that were no longer there.

Acrid, black water flows from the GCT plants straight into the sea, carrying with it sulfuric acid and phosphogypsum, which is deadly to marine life. Erin Clare Brown / The National

A 2018 report by the EU found that GCT dumps about five million tonnes of phosphogypsum into the Mediterranean each year.

The report said the combination of acids, heavy metals, radioactive material and opaque particles has choked fish species and killed off reefs and sea grass beds that were breeding grounds for fish.

Hundreds of species once found in the Gulf of Gabes have disappeared and the report predicts they may never return.

A 2012 government survey found that fishing yields contracted by 30 per cent between 1997 and 2006. Fishermen such as Taoufik Ben Alaya say the situation is even more dire.

"I've been fishing here 42 years – the rocks and reefs used to be crystal clean and all sorts of fish would lay their eggs here. Now the water is so polluted we just pull up nets of dead fish and crabs," Mr Ben Alaya said.

Fish caught to the north of the GCT plants show signs of poisoning from heavy metals and cancerous lesions caused by the radioactive particles in phosphogypsum. Erin Clare Brown / The National

The waste is not only harmful to fish.

"Pollutants from phosphate processing can biomagnify," said Dr Larry Brand, a marine biologist at the University of Miami in Florida, another phosphate-rich region. The effects of heavy metals or carcinogenic materials compound as they find their way up the food chain, both in the water and on land, potentially causing averse health effects on humans.

Residents in nearby neighbourhoods know the plants are making them sick. The thick air causes breathing difficulties and the fish they buy at the market are riddled with cancerous lesions. Yet few people have the means to move to healthier climes.

Residents of Ghannouch, north of the GCT plants, buy fish caught in local waters. "We know it is not healthy for us, but what choice do we have?" one resident said. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Boubaker Alaya tends to an onion patch less than a kilometre from the factories. "When the wind blows it brings all the acid and burns the tops of the plants," he said. "We don't have much choice but to work this land."

He said protests by activists and residents last year temporarily shut down the plants, but "eventually the state comes and gives promises and everything goes back to how it was".

Farmer Boubaker Alaya tends to his onion patch less than a kilometer from the GCT plants. He says the tops of his onions get burned from particles released from the factories.  Erin Clare Brown / The National

Mr Debaya, the environmental activist, was one of those who helped to orchestrate the months-long shutdown of the plant. Despite their initial success, their work is an uphill battle.

"A few months ago the minister of the environment came," he said, standing on the beach near the factories, squinting towards the plants to try to discern what kind of gas they were flaring into the atmosphere that evening as the sun began to set.

"She stood here on this beach and cried. And then she went back to Tunis and did nothing."

Environmental activist Khayreddine Debaya participated in protests that shut down the GCT factories last fall. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Health costs 'too high to ignore'

GCT "follows the standards set by the government for what we release into the air and sea," said Mr Derbel. He also affirmed that storage of radioactive waste on-land met environmental standards. But much of what GCT discharges, including phosphogypsum, is not regulated, and the bodies that oversee environmental protection have little authority to force changes.

Yassine Marzouki, the head of studies at the National Agency for Environment Protection, a division of the Ministry of Environment, said his agency's hands are often tied when it comes to stopping pollution.

"Our job is limited to writing down complaints and forwarding it for prosecution in courts – it ends there," he said.

He said legislation is needed to change emissions standards, some of which were set in 1985 in a presidential decree by Habib Bourguiba, and to give oversight bodies more authority.

"We need more jurisdiction to take restrictive measures and shut down factories when needed," Mr Marzouki said. "Right now all we can do is issue fines for violations, and those fines are often negligible when converted to euros."

People still visit the beach in Ghannouch, but few swim in the waters that in some places register a pH of 5. Erin Clare Brown / The National

But without a parliament or a fully-functioning government, little progress can be made. Even calls from within the GCT to update the factories – improving both production capacity and environmental effects – have gone unheeded.

Mr Derbel acknowledges the environmental damage the plants cause. He said he and others have been pushing for a $40 million project to retrofit their production line to replace parts "so old they need to be decommissioned" with newer, more environmentally friendly equipment.

But production at the plants is down to 35 per cent of its high in 2010, leaving a hole in the budget of a country desperate for the foreign currency GCT brings in, even as it operates at a loss. Spending on upgrades is not a priority for the government, Mr Derbel said.

In other phosphate-rich regions of the world, such as Florida, phosphogypsum and wastewater are stored on land, in tightly controlled tailings dams. In 2017, the Tunisian government proposed a $165m project to create a similar tailings pile away from the city and to stop pumping wastewater into the sea.

"It is a complex problem," he said. "You can't just put phosphogypsum anywhere. But the cost of health to the citizens of Gabes has become too high to ignore."

Despite promises from the government to fulfil the project, no detailed plans were announced.

A disproportionate number of children in Gabes suffer from asthma and other lung problems. Erin Clare Brown / The National.

A breath of fresh air for future generations

Dr Hamida Kwass knows those health costs better than most. As the primary pulmonologist at the Mohammed Ben Sassi Regional Hospital of Gabes, she treats an outsize number of patients young and old who are dealing with complex respiratory illnesses that she said are caused or exacerbated by the plants.

She and her colleagues in the oncology department have long suspected links between the factories and the health problems they see, including high instances of nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a rare form of cancer in the back of the throat.

"There is absolutely a link between the factories and these conditions," she said. "It's clear as day. We just have to prove it, scientifically."

Determined to show the effect the factories are having on her patients, Dr Kwass designed a study in 2019 to track spikes in particulate matter known as PM10 and PM2.5, which aggravate the lungs, coming from the factory and compare them to spikes in hospital admissions for acute asthma attacks.

The Covid-19 pandemic put the study on holdas Dr Kwass' surgery overflowed with patients. Now that cases have abated, she is reviving her work, determined to show the link between the factories and her patients' ailments.

"We have to do it to protect future generations," she said.

But for those of the current generation, whose health and livelihoods have already deteriorated beyond repair, the situation looks bleak.

Fisherman Taoufik Ben Alaya says the decline in the industry has been startling. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Mohamed Ben Alaya, who fishes with his brother Taoufik, has suffered from nasopharyngeal cancer for four years. "GCT doesn't care that they're the main cause behind our struggle," he said. "And they refuse to help people with medical expenses or compensation."

Several of the fishermen on the docks said they have applied for jobs at GCT, despite knowing the health risks. But the factories have been waiting for state approval to fill 600 positions – for which they received more than 20,000 applications – since 2017.

While they wait, they are left to try to eek out a living by fishing the polluted waters of the Gulf.

As Mohamed primed the engine of a small fishing boat, his brother tossed the last of the freshly repaired nets on board and clambered over the side.

"Gabes is a mass grave," he said. "Everyone you meet here, they're all dead. All that's left is to put soil on top of us."

With additional reporting by Ghaya Ben Mbarek

Updated: June 11, 2022, 2:00 PM