As the sun rises, forty-two year old Fatima Gharib stands behind her window, trying to inhale the early sea breeze before heading to the kindergarten where she works in the Red Sea city of Ras Ghareb. This beautiful moment is ruined by the oil pollution staining the shore that is seeping into the sand and turning both the sands and the blue sea into a dark hue.
The state of this beach is no different than the other coasts of the city, which run black as a result of an ongoing oil spill from the oil platforms at sea. An environmental catastrophe surrounds Fatima and the children in the kindergarten where she works, as it also threatens the tens of thousands of residents of the region. The leak turns the sand into a landfill for the carcasses of wildlife, it also turns the sea into a toxic that may find their way onto the residents’ tables. As for the beaches, these are covered in black, blocking both sand and gravel.
Coral reefs act like marine life incubators. Repeated oil spills seep into these amid weak environmental agencies protecting against oil spills and amid the failure of oil companies to comply with environmental protection laws and marine exploration. The problem is aggravated by accusations flying between the Ministry of Environment and its oversight bodies on the one hand and the General Petroleum Company (GPC) on the other hand. The GPC is thought to be the primary polluter in that region as revealed by this report.
The city of Ras Ghareb lies 314 kilometres to the southeast of Cairo. Until the end of 2019 the city was inhabited by 41,526 people, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. 67% of the total production of crude oil and condensates (or light hydrocarbon) in Egypt comes from this region. According to the Minister of Petroleum Tariq Al-Mulla, the production is currently estimated at 630,000 barrels per day. The General Petroleum Company alone produces 37,000 barrels per day from Ras Ghareb fields as its current manager, Nabil Abdul-Sadiq, confirmed to the investigator.
67% of the total production of crude oil and condensates in Egypt comes from this region. According to Minister of Petroleum Tariq Al-Mulla, the production is currently estimated at 630,000 barrels per day. The GPC alone produces 37,000 barrels per day from the Ras Ghareb fields, as its current manager, Nabil Abdul-Sadiq, confirmed to ARIJ.
The Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez upon which Ras Ghareb overlooks enjoy biological diversity, as the region is home to the following species:
The investigator conducted a count of the volume of oil spills in the five years between 2015 to 2019 by using data from the Egyptian Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Petroleum.
Petroleum spills and reports against the General Petroleum Company
The Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency has submitted fifteen communications to public prosecution in the past three years. In these, it accuses the General Petroleum Company of causing a leak of crude oil into the sea water. The Ras Ghareb beach, which stretches 75 km along the Gulf of Suez is the most prone to oil spills.
Article (52) of the Egyptian Environmental Law prohibits companies that are authorized to explore and extract sea oil from discharging any pollutant resulting from drilling, exploration, testing wells or production into the sea. It commits them to using safe means which do not harm the aquatic environment. Article (90) of the law imposes a fine of not less than one hundred and fifty thousand pounds (3,175 dollars) and not more than five hundred thousand pounds (14,174 dollars) on those who violate this law.
“It has become normal.” This is how Fatima describes the negative way official entities have been handling pollution in the city, which is affecting the lives of people living close to the sea. It is also impacting the lives of fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the fish stock in the sea.
Older Than the Pyramids
For four years, Mohammad Kamal and his fellow fishermen used their mobile phone cameras to capture photos and videos of small dead fish known as “fry” next to the fishermen's boats. The series of photos and videos are a proof of the occurrence of a crude oil spills. These larvae and small fish live in the coral reef which is an “incubator” as these reefs become colonies for living creatures that grow and stick to its floor.
In April 2014, a study by researchers at the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries (NIOF) estimated that 61% of the coral cover in Ras Ghareb would die. The study described the oil spill onto the marine environment in this city to be “the most dangerous” one impacting Red Sea cities.
Muntaser Al-Hamadi describes coral reefs as “Cities within the water, inhabited by small fish.” Al-Hamadi supervises a study on the effects of oil pollution in the region. He says that the reefs are estimated to be 10,000 years old, which means that they are older than the pyramids. Their death led to a decline of the volume of the fish stock . The expert explains that even if the oil spill stops, these reefs need 50 years to regenerate again.
The General Director of the Environmental Affairs Agency in the Red Sea Abu Al-Hajjaj Nasr Al-Din argues that there is an oil fingerprint linked to each well. Nasr Al-Din explains, “Once the leaked oil samples are analysed, the Environmental Affairs Agency reveals the company that is causing it and commissions the company to clean it. Alternately, it assigns the mission to Petrosafe, the Petroleum Safety and Environmental Services Company, which is a governmental institution. The cleaning process lasts from one to four days, depending on the amount of pollution.
After each leak, complaints are reported to a joint committee made up of representatives of bodies affiliated with the Ministry of Environment (Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), nature reserves, the General Administration of the Ministry and a member of the Environmental Measurement Laboratory in Suez). The committee studies the circumstances surrounding the complaint, takes samples from the site, and prepares a report on the area and the volume of the oil spills.
The oil print is a distinctive feature of each oil type containing a unique mixture of substances that determine its physical and chemical properties. These include the color and viscosity formed by the diversity of geological conditions and time periods that contribute to its formation. The oil fingerprint is determined by a complex process, using gas chromatography for molecular fossils or crude oil biomarkers.
Kawthar Hafni, the Head of the Central Administration for Disasters and Crisis until 2019 asserts that the clean-up process cleans the beaches completely. Hafni is the current Chief Advisor/ Consultant to the Ministry of Environment and believes that even if the beaches appear to be “blackened,” it is due to “historical and cumulative pollution.”
In contrast to Hafni’s views, the coordinator of the National Plan to Combat Oil Pollution, Ayman Abdul-Wahid, confirms that the oil-polluted environment does not return to its previous condition since the clean-up process targets surface pollution on the beach. Abdul-Wahid argues, “What leaks into the marine environment cannot be combated and affects creatures in the water in the long run.”
On 5 July 2019 the investigator detected a new leak that started in the southern part of the General Petroleum Company on the beach of Dai Al-Qamar and the southern region. On the fourteenth of the same month, the Environmental Affairs Agency accused the General Petroleum Company of having caused this leak.
On 19 August 2019 and after completing the clean-up operations, the investigator took samples from the water, soil, fish, snails, from different places along the coast of Ras Ghareb for analysis at the Suez branch of the National Institute of Oceanography laboratory.
On 9 September 2019, the results of the analyses showed that the ratios of toxic petroleum substances in fish were higher than the ratios and limits allowed for human consumption, according to the standards of the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety which sets the limit at 1 microgram / g.
The Environmental Affairs Agency warned in communiqué No. 40 that fish contaminated in oil is not suitable for human consumption. The agency reported that the most persistent oil compounds are transported through the food chain and stored in the liver and fatty tissues of marine animals. This leaves long-term effects that do not appear in humans until years later.
Walaa Shaban is a professor of Marine Sciences in the Faculty of Science at Al-Azhar University. He supervised a study that monitored the impact of oil spills pollution on soil and gastropods on the coast of the Red Sea. Shaban explains that people feel lethargic and tired if they eat fish that contain aromatic compounds. People also experience shortness of breath and sensitivity in the nerves and spinal cord.
Ingesting hydrocarbon compounds such as gasoline and kerosene leads to irritation of the throat and stomach, as well as to pneumonia and difficulty in breathing. It also affects the central nervous system. Other compounds within petroleum substances affect the immune system, liver, spleen, kidneys and lungs. They impact the development of the foetus as well. Benzene and benzo[a]pyrene also cause leukaemia.
Source: The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)- USA
We confronted Ayman Abdul-Wahid, the coordinator of the National Plan to Combat Oil Pollution, a department of the Ministry of Environment. He rejects the hypothesis of the possible effect of pollution from oil spills and its transmission to humans in Ras Ghareb. Abdul-Wahid says, “The city strives on petroleum activities, and there are no fishing or touristic activities on its polluted beaches.”
Contrary to his claims, the investigator obtained security permits for fishing on beaches that were subject to frequent oil spills in Ras Ghareb.
The Dai Al-Qamar beach has been subjected to seven oil spills in the past five years.
The Ras Ghareb corniche has had 13 oil spills in the past five years
The beach in the southern region has witnessed two oil spills in the last five years.
Neglect in Maintenance
The former Head of the Central Administration for Disasters and Crisis, Kawthar Hafni, attributes the leaks to “negligence in following up on and maintaining pipelines networks transporting the crude from oil platforms to the reservoirs on the beach. This is in addition to negligence in keeping the oil platforms and reservoirs in good working order ”
Hafni’s records and history in the Ministry of Environment until 2019 show that she accuses “the General Petroleum Company of negligence in dealing with oil leaks.” She notes that she issued official complaints documenting the violations which reached the Prime Minister and the President of the Republic.
Between 2015 and 2019, the Environmental Affairs Agency issued 22 official statements against the General Petroleum Company.
Polluters Go Unpunished
The investigator obtained the results of the analysis of three oil fingerprint samples leaked between 12 December 2018 and 7 March 2019. All analyses point to the offshore ‘Amer’ oil platform of the General Petroleum Company with identical matching ratios that exceed 99%.
In his response, the Head of the General Petroleum Company, Nabil Abdul-Sadiq, says that the analysis do not all correspond by a 100% and therefore, they are not sufficient evidence against the company. He adds that the report did not specify precisely which company platform caused the leak, and that therefore they are erroneous analysis that leave room for doubt.
Abdul-Sadiq questions the validity of the fingerprint, pointing out that it can change. A single well does not produce oil with a fixed oil fingerprint for the whole duration of its operation. He is demanding that the Environmental Affairs Agency update each company’s fingerprint at least every three months. He notes that the company’s oil fingerprint currently registered with the Ministry is inaccurate.
The Vice president of the Suez Branch of the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries (NIOF), Khalid Al-Moslahi rejects Abdul Sadiq’s claims. He explains the failure of a 100% match in the oil fingerprint by the possibility of the samples mixing with sea water which would affect the chemical compounds. He asserts that 99% is identical to the source and is sufficient to prove which company has caused the specific environmental damage.
The reporter obtained copies of some cases and their full details. Investigations have shown that the layers from which the public company produces its oil are the same ones from which the Gulf of Suez Petroleum Company (GUPCO) produces oil. That is why the General Petroleum Company won three cases filed by the Environmental Affairs Agency. According to the statement of the president of the company, these are cases (5478) for the year 2018, appealed misdemeanour case in Hurghada; (5652) for the year 2018, appealed in misdemeanour case in Hurghada; (2494) for misdemeanour case in Ras Gareb appealed under case number (4197) for the year 2017.
As for now, the fisherman Samir deserts Ras Gharib in search of a livelihood on distant beaches, hoping that his nets will help in capturing food for his children. Kindergarten children roam around Fatima who warns them against going to the polluted beach while Hussam and his colleagues are trying to alert environmental agencies to the dangers of frequent pollutions through cyberspace.
On the horizon, rocks remain stained in black, sands hide behind blocks of accumulated oil, and fish lay dead, or they already deserted the Red Sea reefs. The greatest danger is awaiting residents of the area in the form of a meal of fresh fish that a fisherman may bring them after a new oil spill.
This investigation was carried out with the support of ARIJ.