Probe into Lebanon’s Zahle quake points to quarry blast

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A quarry explosion caused an earthquake in Lebanon that was felt by the residents of Zahle in the Bekaa Valley on June 3, according to the internal security forces.

They had opened a probe to determine the cause of the tremor and found that its epicenter was the Qaa Al-Rim region, 4 km from the city of Zahle.

According to the investigation, the quake at 2:15 p.m. was “caused by an explosion in quarries in the Tweiti area, owned by two people from the Abu Hamdan family.”

The quake measured magnitude 3 on the Richter scale, according to Marleine Brax, director of the National Center for Geophysics, who added that the tremor “was preceded by the sound of an explosion.”

Nasser Yassin, minister of environment in the caretaker government, said: “We had issued a decision to close this quarry, in particular, some time ago, and there is a judicial order to seal it with red wax.”

According to the investigation carried out by a technical expert, “the explosion was caused by the use of large quantities of explosive materials that were introduced deep into the ground in the area of these quarries.”

Geological expert Dr. Nelson Rizk said: “Those who carry out the work of blasting quarries use a type of dynamite that gives medium but consecutive explosions, which affects the geological layers. It has nothing to do with ammonium nitrate. This type of dynamite is considered very strong and is prohibited globally, but in Lebanon, all prohibited materials can be found.”

Rizk added: “The use of these prohibited substances generates vibrations, has a bad effect on the environment and leaves toxic substances that threaten health.

“The quarries violate areas that may be close to the Yammouneh fault, which is an active and movable fault. Explosions may affect it and increase seismic movements. So far, the effect is very limited, and moving the fault requires vibrations of about magnitude 4 or 4.5 on the Richter scale.”

The Zahle tremors follow the destructive earthquake that struck Turkiye and Syria on Feb. 6.

Seismologist Dr. Tony El-Nemr said: “The tremor that occurred in the Zahle is suspiciously similar to the tremor that occurred in Keserwan (Mount Lebanon) on May 6 of last year in terms of timing (Saturday afternoon) and location (a quarry).”

The National Center for Geophysics, in collaboration with the National Institute of Earth Sciences in Grenoble, France, in a report on the movements of the earth’s crust in the eastern Mediterranean basin, drew the attention of geologists to “the concentration of earthquakes observed in Lebanon during the daytime and on official holidays.”

Minister Yassin said: “There are 1,235 sites where rock extraction is taking place on Lebanese territory, based on the survey conducted by the Lebanese army, dozens of which are in violation, and some are operating on critical seismic points. However, law enforcement on the ground is the responsibility of the security forces and local administrations.”

Yassin said that the quarries, crushers and sand quarries sector owed the state treasury at least $2.4 billion for materials extracted between 2007 and 2018, including about $1 billion in fees and taxes. “This does not include the cost of the suffering and encroachments that are left for the judiciary to determine, and what the affected individuals are supposed to claim in compensation,” he said.

He added that the Environment Ministry was working with the Justice Ministry “to study the most appropriate legal methods to pursue the case, as this is a fundamental step toward collecting treasury funds and stopping previous practices in this sector and thus reforming it.”

However, Ghayath Yazbek, head of the parliamentary environment committee, said that authorities were yet to decide 10 days after the quake “whether it was a natural earthquake or a human act.”

At a parliament meeting on Tuesday, the committee listened to representatives of the agencies in the Ministries of Environment, Public Works and Finance. It also heard accounts from the army and internal security forces.

Yazbek said: “The investigations are still underway, and we have not yet been able to know the nature of this explosion. Was it a seismic move or the product of human activity? What we heard is very disturbing, because the quarries in the Zahle area are supposed to be sealed with red wax.”

Quarry owners in the area were quick to deny that any work had taken place. But Yazbek said that an official in the internal security forces “confirmed intermittent activity.”

The National Authority for the Litani River was tasked by the government to prepare a report on sand quarries and mines within the Litani River Basin, revealing embezzled funds resulting from quarry operations.

The report provided a detailed account of all quarry, mine, and crusher sites in all Lebanese territories, revealing huge profits, damaged areas and widespread tax evasion.

According to the report, about 65,000,000 square meters across Lebanon has been damaged by activity from 1,356 quarries, crushers and sand mines. About 1.6 billion cubic meters of raw materials are estimated to have been extracted from the sites, resulting in profits of $24 billion.

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