x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sickly side of the quarrying boom

Residents say they have endured official neglect for years as the process of making cement has affected their homes and their health.

A homeowner points out damage in a bathroom that he believes was caused by blasting at quarries near his home in the village of Jerief.
A homeowner points out damage in a bathroom that he believes was caused by blasting at quarries near his home in the village of Jerief.

JERIEF, FUJAIRAH // Five years ago, Jerief was an idyllic village in a quiet Fujairah wadi. Now the village, about 20km from the Ras al Khaimah airport, is blanketed by dust from the nearby quarries. New buildings have huge cracks in their walls, palm groves are covered in thick layers of dust, and residents cannot sleep through the night because of health problems that they say are caused by poor air quality.

For many families, life in Jerief has become a nightmare. The Federal Environment Agency passed regulations a year ago requiring quarries to reduce noise and dust emissions. They gave quarries a year to limit the amount of sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, suspended particles and breathable dust they generate. The guidelines also prohibit quarries within three kilometres of residential areas from blasting between 8pm and 7am and forbid the use of explosives, chemicals and radioactive materials without approval.

Last month, the Ministry of Environment and Water shut down several quarries in RAK, Fujairah and Ajman for failing to comply with the guidelines. Residents and health officials say there have been some improvements but believe that the situation overall has worsened in the past year. Children are considered most vulnerable to respiratory problems. "The dust, the sand, the pollution have increased," said Saleh al Yaminahi, 24, an Emirati from Jerief and father of a two-year-old girl. "Our children and our families have these diseases they didn't have before."

He cited a preponderance of coughing, asthma and eczema, especially among babies. "Every two or three months you have to take your babies to check them because the air is not clean," he said. A 29-year-old mother of seven said it was a rare week when someone in her family was not seriously sick from the dust. "I haven't seen any change; all the time they are sick," she said, adding that all of the children in her village suffer from watery eyes and breathing problems.

She pointed to the cracks in the walls of her home, all caused by the blasting, she said. "This is a new house," she said. "All of the houses are like this. Before, it was fine. Ten years ago, the air was very good." Employees of companies that breach the regulations have also been affected. "For me, it's a very big problem," said Mohammed Ibrahim, a 35-year-old Jordanian who has worked at a quarry near Jerief for two years.

"If you come at night, I can't see you at this distance," he said, standing about two metres away. "When the crusher works, you see dust for maybe half a kilometre." "All people working in the crusher have problems. Maybe in this place there are 20 crushers." The biggest problem, he said, is the proximity of the houses to the quarries. "My concern is not for me," he said. "In this place, maybe 70 per cent of children have problems.

"We want environmental controls. We want the government to come and see this. And we want to have machines to control this." The clouds of dust in the south of RAK and along the Fujairah border have worsened in the last six years as the quarry and cement industry has boomed in response to rapid construction in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Production at existing quarries has soared to supply cement factories with limestone. And the number of quarries in Fujairah and Ras al Khaimah has increased; there are now around 90.

But what was a blessing for the country's economy has been a bane for some citizens. "A lot of kids regardless of age - newborns, infants - all are coming here with bronchial asthma," said a nurse who has worked at the Sha'am Hospital for more than 15 years. "During one shift, an average of 30 to 40 patients just come for the nebulisation, in eight hours," she said, referring to the inhalation of medication.

"When I first came here, just once in a blue moon we gave nebulisation," she said. "Recently we've had so many patients with respiratory infections." Most are aged two to 10, she said. An estimated 105,000 people, mostly Emirati families with young children, live in rural RAK, and nearly all live next to quarries. The governments of Fujairah and RAK have offered to relocate families. In June last year, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr, Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of RAK, ordered that 30 houses be built in Al Hlihla, five kilometres from the quarries, for residents of Khor Khwair and Rahba. Housing was also offered in Al Dhait, 50km away.

But many residents say they cannot leave. "In our tradition, it is a shame on you that you leave your village and go to another area," said Mr al Yaminah. "Your grandparents are from here, and you are born here. You can't leave it." Many residents are reluctant to talk about the problems they are experiencing because they do not want to be considered critical of the municipal government, which derives revenue from the quarries and the cement plants.

In the north of Ras al Khaimah, residents have protested against the quarries since they opened in the 1970s. Four years ago, women from the village of Rahba prevented vehicles from entering a quarry that was one kilometre from their village. The protest led to six injuries and seven arrests. Residents of Khor Khwair say they have continued their protests and block the movement of lorries several times a year.

The RAK Police says there are no records of protests, but residents say otherwise. A mother of eight who lives a few hundred metres from the factories said the situation had become much worse over the past year. After protests in the spring, she said, police told people in her village not to cause any more problems and warned that there could be consequences. "It's not just about adults," she said. "It's about all the children. It's a huge problem."

She runs through her house, pointing out cavities in the ceiling where chunks of cement have fallen out because of the blasting. She points to large holes over the couch. "At midnight, they make dynamite. Our babies sleep here and this falls. All of Khor Khwair is the same." Her son, Mr al Shehhi, said that many residents used to speak openly of the problems but that people were now afraid to speak up.

"Every time the papers write anything, it gets worse," he said. "We have no hope. Before, they said they would put filters." Although the government has offered housing in other parts of Ras al Khaimah, Mr al Shehhi said relocation was not an option for most families. "These factories, there's no way for them to be removed, and people don't want to leave these houses. "Their great-great-grandfathers lived here, they are buried here, their graveyards are here."

"Young people would move, but old men, no. Everything they did in their life is attached to this place - from the first tree they planted to the last goat that died. They cannot leave this place." Nor can the quarries. "They are a large part of the RAK economy," said Hamad al Shamsi, the deputy general director of the RAK Department of Economic Development. "In RAK, we don't get income from oil or gas."

The quarries "are important not only for RAK but for all UAE, actually. For all of the construction here, you need this material. "I've been in those factories, and they spend a lot of money from their profit to follow the law. That comes from Sheikh Saud; he doesn't want the dust to affect the people." Mr al Shamsi suggested that residents report their concerns to the Government. "We don't want our people to be sick," he said. "If they come to me and ask to move, it would be no problem."

Still, many quarries are reluctant or unable to make what is a considerable investment in the technology needed to help workers and residents, according to Ayman al Hadidi, the general manager of Gibca Crushing And Quarry Operations. Gibca spent Dh4.5 million (US$1.2m) on environmental protection to limit dust emissions to 35 parts per million. "Under national law, these can be as high as 100," Mr al Hadidi said.

Installing and maintaining equipment to limit emissions "needs a lot of investment, and the company should have the finance to do that. So many companies don't have the finance." For residents, air quality may worsen before it improves. Although cement companies and quarries are making visible environmental improvements - such as a Dh100 million investment by Gulf Cement Company in bag filters, automatic spray machines, jumbo domes and a green cover area - they still have a long way to go.

The higher cost of diesel and gas and a price cap on cement of Dh14 per bag mean that to be profitable, many companies are switching to coal, which is likely to increase pollution and health problems. In addition to coal imports by private companies, the RAK Government plans to build coal power stations to help industry. azacharias@thenational.ae