As the sun rises, 42-year old Fatima Gharib peers through her window, inhaling the mist of the sea before heading to the nursery where she works in the Red Sea city of Ras Ghareb. This beautiful moment is tainted by the oil spill staining the shoreline; seeping into the once golden sand.
The darkened hue of the shoreline is no different to other coastlines outlining the city, and is the result of ongoing oil spills from company's working at sea. An environmental catastrophe encircles Fatima and the children at her kindergarten, and threatens the tens of thousands residing in the region. The leaks have turned the shore into a landfill for wildlife carcasses, and the sea into a residual layer of fish contaminated with toxic compounds that may well find their way to the dinner tables of the town’s residents. As for the beaches, their once golden shorelines and transparent blue waters, are now blackened and congested with thick oil residue.
Coral reefs act like marine life incubators, and those inhabiting the Red Sea shores, are absorbing oil spill after oil spill amid weak protection from environmental agencies, and the failure of oil companies to comply with environmental protection laws and marine exploration. This environmental catastrophe 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, which this investigation found to be accused as the primary polluter.
The city of Ras Ghareb lies 314km southeast of Cairo. By the end of 2019, the city was inhabited by 41,526 people, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics.
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 they house the following species:
ARIJ conducted a tally of the volume of oil spills from 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
In the past three years, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency has submitted 15 communications to the public prosecution. In these, it accuses the GPC of being behind a crude oil leak. The Ras Ghareb beach, which stretches for 75km along the Gulf of Suez, is the most prone to oil spills.
Article 52 of the Egyptian Environmental Law prohibits companies that are authorised to explore and extract marine 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 no less than 150,000 pounds ($3,175) and no more than 500,000 pounds ($14,174) on those who violate this law.
“It has become normal,” describes Fatima, on the negligent way official entities handle pollution in the city, which is affecting the lives of people living near the sea. It is also impacting the lives of fishermen whose livelihoods depend on catching and selling fish.
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. These larvae and small fish live in the coral reef “incubator” as the reefs become colonies for living creatures that grow and stick to the bottom.
In April 2014, a study by researchers at the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries estimated that 61% of the coral cover in Ras Ghareb would die. The study described the oil spill onto the marine environment of the 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 in the number of fisheries. The expert explains that even if the oil spills stop, these reefs need 50 years to recover and re-grow.
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 oil 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 the governmental institution Petrosafe (the Petroleum Safety and Environmental Services Company). 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 quantity of the oil.
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 colour 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 Crises until 2019 asserts that the cleanup process cleans the beaches completely. Hafni is the current Chief Advisor to the Ministry of Environment and believes that any “blackening” of the beaches 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 cleanup 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 July 5, 2019, ARIJ detected a new leak that started in the southern part of the General Petroleum Company to the beach of Dai Al-Qamar and the southern region. On the 14th of the same month, the Environmental Affairs Agency accused the General Petroleum Company of having caused this leak.
On August 19, 2019, and after completing the cleanup operations, ARIJ took samples of fish, water, snails, and soil from different places along the coast of Ras Ghareb for analysis at the Suez branch of the National Institute of Oceanography laboratory.
On September 9, 2019, the results showed that the ratios of toxic petroleum substances in fish were higher than the ratios and limits allowed for human consumption, in accordance with the standards of the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety which sets the limit at 1 migroramme per gramme.
The Environmental Affairs Agency warned in communiqué No. 40 that fish contaminated after an oil spill are 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 has 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 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 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 fetus as well. Benzene and benzo[a]pyrene also cause leukemia.
Source: The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
We confronted Ayman Abdul-Wahid, the coordinator of the National Plan to Combat Oil Pollution branching from the Ministry of Environment, who rejects the hypothesis of the transmission of pollution to humans in Ras Ghareb: “The city is based on petroleum activities, and there are no fishing or touristic activities on its polluted beaches.”
Contrary to his claims, ARIJ obtained security permits for fishing on beaches that were subject to frequent oil spills, including the aforementioned Ras Ghareb one.
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.
The former head of the Central Administration for Disasters and Crises, Kawthar Hafni, attributes the leak to “negligence in following up on and maintaining the crude oil transport pipelines from water fields to reservoirs on the beach. This is in addition to negligence in maintaining these water fields and reservoirs on the beach.”
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 has issued official complaints documenting the violations which reached both the Prime Minister and President of the Republic.
Between 2015 and 2019, the Environmental Affairs Agency issued 22 official statements against the General Petroleum Company.
Polluters Go Unpunished
ARIJ obtained the results of the analysis of three oil fingerprint samples leaked between December 12, 2018 and March 7, 2019. All analyses point to the offshore Amer platform of the General Petroleum Company with identical matching ratios that exceed 99%.
In his response, Head of the General Petroleum Company Nabil Abdul-Sadiq, says that the analyses do not all 100% correspond 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 analyses that leave room for doubt.
Abdul-Sadiq questions the validity of the fingerprint, pointing out that it is prone to change. A single well does not produce oil with a fixed oil fingerprint for the whole duration of its operation. He demands 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.
Vice-president of the Suez Branch of the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries (NIOF), Khalid Al-Moslahi, rejects this idea. 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 that the companies caused environmental damage.
The reporter obtained detailed copies of certain cases, which show that the layers from which the public company produces oil are the same ones from which the Gulf of Suez Petroleum Company produces oil, il, which is why the General Petroleum Company won three cases filed by the Environmental Affairs Agency. According to a statement by the company’s president, two in 2018 for misdemeanor in Hurghada were appealed, and another for misdemeanor in Ras Ghareb was appealed in 2017.
As for Samir, he has left Ras Ghareb in search of livelihood in distant waters, hoping that his nets will help in capturing food for his children. Meanwhile, kindergarten children roam freely around Fatima who warns them against going to the polluted beach, and Hussam and his colleagues are using technology to try to alert environmental agencies to the dangers of frequent pollution.
On the horizon, rocks remain stained in black, the golden sand is hidden under blocks of hardened oil, and fish lay dead, or have deserted the Red Sea reefs altogether. The greatest danger however, is awaiting residents of the area, in the form of a meal of fresh fish that a fisherman may unknowingly bring them after a new oil spill.
This investigation was carried out with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).