Court hears session in case against coal imports

The Cairo Administrative Court heard a session on Saturday in a case levied against several state bodies for allowing coal imports into Egypt.

Khaled Ali, a labor rights lawyer and candidate in the 2012 presidential elections, filed the suit against the prime minister and the ministers of industry, electricity, environment and petroleum. Ali is leading the case with two other lawyers, representing a Helwan resident who lives near a cement plant and whose health and surrounding environment are likely to be affected by the factory’s use of coal.

Environment Minister Laila Iskandar, a staunch and vocal opponent of coal, was advised not to attend the session by the government’s legal counsel, according to Ali.

Last week, the Cabinet approved the use of coal for to power the cement industry and generate electricity in power stations as the government continues to scramble for a solution for the ongoing energy crisis. Several ministers claim an energy mix that includes coal will ensure energy security, though environmental and human rights activists have lobbied hard for the state to maintain its ban on coal.

The lawyers demand a reversal on the coal imports decision and a moratorium on the use of already imported coal.

Ali’s argument centered on the privileged position of the cement industry, the health effects of coal on Egyptians and the availability of cleaner energy alternatives.

According to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), the cement industry is chipping away at the country’s resources while destroying Egyptians’ health. Cement makes large profit margins, the center said, with very little of this profit returned to the Egyptian economy. The size of their profits is amplified by the state’s provision of subsidized natural gas and electricity, with cement consuming 70 percent of industry’s subsidized electricity allowance, despite the energy crisis.

While businessmen investing in the cement industry profit from this position, the industry as a whole employs only an estimated 6,000 workers. Ali further suggested it would be cheaper to ban coal imports and import cement to make up for the loss in production.

The cement industry published a thank you statement to the Cabinet for allowing the use of coal without any concern for the environmental consequences, indicating their lack of concern over citizens’ health and their right to a clean environment, Ali asserted.

Most health-related arguments made during the court session were based on the notion that Egypt’s health system is already ailing and in need of reform and funding, and thus has no capacity to accept the increase in patients with health deficiencies that coal could cause in the long term.

Lamenting Iskandar’s absence, Ali submitted video footage of the environment minister stating her reasons for opposing coal.

The judge refused Ali’s request to adjourn the trial so that the court could listen to Iskandar’s testimony, opting instead to invite her to submit a written testimony to the next hearing, scheduled for May 24.

The judge also asked for energy expert Adel Tawfiq to testify on other alternatives to coal.

According to Tawfiq, energy consumption and efficiency must be better managed, as 20 percent of generated energy is currently being lost in various ways. It would be feasible for the government to design a plan to reduce 30 percent of current energy consumption over the next five years, Tawfiq argued, asserting that tackling energy theft in the electricity sector is worthwhile for the energy savings it could bring.

In addition, like China, Germany and other countries, Egypt has the potential to invest in solar energy, as the costs of that energy system continue to decrease, Tawfiq added.

Ehab Taher, Doctors Syndicate secretary general, stated that the side effects of coal combustion affect the human body, the environment, water and fish. Egypt does not have the proper environmental standards to restrict coal usage to prevent the worst of these side effects, as is done in other countries, and the healthcare system does not have the capacity to absorb the extra patients, Taher asserted.

Mohamed Adel of ECESR went on to argue that in the past 20 years, Germany has replaced some of its nuclear and coal capacity with renewable energy, and that between 2010 and 2013 it added an output equivalent to over eight large nuclear reactors thanks to that transition.

Doctors Syndicate secretary general Mona Mina and members of the Egyptians Against Coal Coalition attended the court hearing to support the case.

Norhan Mokhtar, the health program officer at ECESR, was also in attendance. “It’s good to see the Doctors Syndicate collaborating proactively with civil society on an issue as important as coal. ECESR really sees this as a huge threat to the health of Egyptians, especially the poorest, and will continue to battle on all fronts against the decision,” she says.

The Administrative Court plans to hear the next session in the case on May 24, two days before voting in the presidential election is slated to begin.