Ahmed Fateh, 33, is used to watching the water from the Walidiya power station drain into the Nile River every day. He owns a plot of land next to the station and irrigates it with Nile water, whose water was mixed with the sewage waste of the diesel-powered power plant.
Years ago, the productivity of Ahmed’s land declined due to the polluted irrigation water, in addition to the fall of black emissions from the nearby power station on his plants and trees, destroying their fruits.
According to Ali Abdo, one of the landowners close to the power station, the dust and fumes from the power station’s usage of diesel fuel mix with the drinking water. “Whenever we put water in bottles to drink, we find dark stuff at the bottom of the bottle,” he adds.
Alaa Abdullah lives with his family just metres away from Ahmed’s farm. From his balcony, he can see black smoke coming from the chimneys of El-walidiya power station. Alaa describes it as a black cloud from which rain of black oil falls on the heads of those living near the station.
Alaa recalls the incident that happened two years ago, saying: “There were thick black smoke releasing from the chimneys of the Al-Walidiya power station. The smoke covered the whole sky of the governorate, because of which oils fell on us. My children were afraid and panicked, as if it was the Doomsday.”
Local Egyptian newspapers reported in 2017 that the Public Prosecution had opened extensive investigations with the officials of the Assiut power station in the Walidiya area, following reports from dozens of citizens that there were black clouds around the power station, and as a result, the residents of the area suffocated as a result of air pollution emitted from Assuit steam’s station.
At the time of the accident, Engineer Hala Mohamed, director of the Environmental Affairs Department in Assiut Governorate, stated that the administration had passed by Al-Walidiya station and communicated with officials, who confirmed that one of the boilers had malfunctioned and that it had been repaired to operate the boiler. During making sure of its correctness, gases leaked from one of the valves, resulting in the dispersal of large amounts of dust and fumes that polluted the air.
The plant is located on the west bank of the Nile, 3 km north of the Assiut reservoir and 377 km from Cairo. It operates on diesel with the possibility of using natural gas as an alternative fuel. It consists of two units with a capacity of 300 megawatts each. The first unit was commissioned in March 1992, and the second was commissioned in February 1997
The project of the third unit of the Walidiya power plant, which operates at supercritical pressures and has a capacity of 650 megawatts, has been completed at a cost of 8 billion pounds.
A recent study published in the international “Silwan” journal in 2019 by three Egyptian researchers, Hani Al-Gamal, Hani Negm, and Muhammad Hassab Al-Nabi, confirms that the ash emerging from the Al-Walidiya power station contains a high percentage of radioactivity and poses a potential and real danger to the health of employees working in the power plant and residents living in the power plant area.
The study confirmed that the radioactivity concentrations of all oil ash samples were also observed to be higher than the activity levels determined by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Another study conducted by the same previous research team and published in the American Journal of Environmental Sciences, found that the ash from the combustion of heavy fuel oil in the Assiut thermal power plant contains nearly a thousand times more natural radionuclides than crude oil. The concentrations of natural radionuclides in the resulting ash are much higher than the corresponding concentrations in the Earth’s crust, and much higher than those in coal fly ash in other countries.
The study also reveals exceptionally high radionuclide ratios, several orders of magnitude greater than the population-weighted average values of soils around the world. The radium equivalent activity, air absorbed dose rate, external hazard index and annual effective dose rate were determined and compared to internationally approved values.
This suggests that ATPP poses severe radiological health concerns due to radionuclides in the soil. Furthermore, the water samples examined contained high concentrations of radioactivity, indicating that the water was highly contaminated by radioactive materials.
As well as the high radium equivalent activity, air absorbed dose rate, external hazard index and annual effective dose rate with recommended international values, indicating significant radiological health risks around Al-Walidiya plant due to radionuclide in soil, air and water.
To view the scientific studies of the Al-Walidiya power station:
The study also discovered extraordinarily high radioactive levels in soil and water that were many times higher than weighted average readings worldwide.
The concentration of radionuclide activity in heavy oil and ash in radium emitted from the Al-Walidiya plant was 46 times that of India, 21 times that of Bangladesh, and 23 times that of Cuba, and the concentration of thorium activity is approximately 47 times that of India and 41 times that of Bangladesh. In Cuba, the value is 98 times higher. The potassium content of the El-Walidiya plant was 31 times that of India, 48 times that of Bangladesh, and 186 times that of Cuba.
According to the Radiation Control Program (RCP), long-term exposure to radium and thorium increases the risk of some types of cancer, particularly lung and bone cancer. High dosages of radium have also been linked to anaemia, cataracts, tooth decay, and decreased bone growth.
In addition, prolonged potassium exposure causes poisoning, nausea, headache, birth defects, kidney and liver, and nervous system disorders.
The author of the study, Muhammad Hassab al-Nabi, a professor in the Department of Physics at Badr University, told the investigator that the main reason for the pollution of the Assiut power station is the use of diesel (Mazut) as fuel, as diesel (Mazut) is burned inside the electric furnaces, resulting in exhaust from chimneys and health damage to local residents. Moreover, it also affects the soil and agricultural production, as well as the wells used for irrigation.
According to Dr. Muhammad Hassab Al-Nabi, as a professor in the Department of Physics at Badr University, the results they reached were very high, and because of this, he and the study team went to the governor of Assiut at the time to inform him of the serious harm inflicted on the workers and residents of the station, but the governor’s response was that the station was identical specifications and does not result in significant damage.
According to Al-Nabi, even if the source of petroleum derivatives used at the factory is replaced with another source, the hazards faced by the plant’s workers and the impacted local people do not change. Since a result, it is critical to take into consideration the dangers of the Al-Walidiya power station, as it is a real crisis that causes many problems for the local population.
Diseases afflicting local residents
Three years after Hana Abdo moved to Ezbet Khalaf in the Walidiya area of Assiut, I felt an abscess on the breast for the first time. She ignored the matter because she thought it was caused by her diabetes, but breath suffocation prompted her to go to the doctor, only to find out after tests that she had breast and lung cancer.
Hana, whose house is engulfed in smoke from the Al-Walidiya power station, informs the investigating panel that she contracted the sickness after moving to the neighbourhood.
She attributes her condition to the smoke she sees and inhales on a regular basis from her house’s balcony. In fact, the thick smoke seeps through the lengthy street that separates her house from the Al-Walidiya station, and into her sick chest through the walls of the old house.
Hana lost her husband four years ago and became the main breadwinner for her family, as well as being responsible for preparing her daughter for marriage, but the disease rendered her bedridden, like a huge number of individuals in the neighbourhood. She visits the Governmental Oncology Institute in Assiut on a weekly basis to be treated at the expense of the state because she cannot afford to go to a private hospital for better care.
Rabab Hesham, a doctor at the Oncology Institute in Assiut and the medical doctor treating Hana’s case, confirms the rise in lung cancer patients in recent years.
Rabab has been working at the Oncology Institute for nearly five years, but the number of patients, particularly those with lung cancer, has climbed substantially in recent years, with more than three persons visiting her every day.
She went on to say that using diesel (mazut) fuel to generate electricity results in harmful emissions, and that direct and continuous exposure to them causes many diseases such as lung cancer, anaemia, and others, and that the smoke emitted by the burning of these elements causes suffocation and difficulty breathing.
Othman, (pseudonym) a former worker at the Al-Walidiya power station, never leaves his oxygen spray. He confirms that his situation is similar to that of many station employees, and a friend of his died of chest difficulties.
Othman’s 30-year-old neighbour also has breathing problems, so serious that he has severe difficulty sleeping; he goes from doctor to doctor looking for the cause of this disease at such a young age.
According to Hassab al-Nabi, the most affected group by the pollution are the workers inside the Al-Walidiya power station. He confirms that the more burning takes place, the more ash accumulates.
While working on the study, he met a number of workers with chest disease, including those who complained of chest pain, balance problems and dizziness – the most common symptoms of radiation injury, he says.
According to the interviews of the professor of physics, Muhammad Hassab Al-Nabi, with the workers, their friends died of chest problems, but the research could not reach the causes of death, because the causes of the workers’ injuries or deaths were not determined in the first place due to the limited experience and education of the workers, and none of them was aware of the extent of the danger.
According to Hassab al-Nabi, there is an engineering method whereby the chimneys can reduce the amount of ash emitted, but this was rejected by officials.
Other solutions suggested by the research, such as changing the type of diesel (mazut) used, occurred in 2019, but Dr. Hassab Al-Nabi confirms that they conducted a study to determine the impact of changing the source of diesel (mazut), and they discovered that the percentage of radioactive emissions had decreased, but it still exceeded the permissible limits.
Therefore, it is suggested to completely change the type of fuel to be natural gas instead of diesel, as it is less polluting to the environment.
Dr. Mohamed Mokhtar, head of the Upper Egypt Electricity Production Company – to which the Assiut power station in Al-Waleediya belongs – rejects the citizens’ complaints and the study prepared by Hassaballah and his colleagues.
He says that the old Al-Walidiya station, when operating, conforms to the environmental conditions and specifications, and in response to the study prepared by specialists at Assiut University on the radioactive pollution emanating from the station, Mukhtar replied that the station does not cause any radioactive pollution at all, skeptical of the study in the first place.
In his response to the investigator, Mukhtar added that the Al-Walidiya plant consists of two production units that operate on diesel, the capacity of the unit is 300 megawatts, and currently one unit has been stopped and the other is operating with a low load and not at full capacity, after relying on a large percentage of production from the newly established unit with a capacity of 650 megawatts and operates on natural gas.
Mokhtar added that the old diesel-powered unit was equipped to work with natural gas, but the obstacle to its work with natural gas is the failure of the Ministry of Petroleum to hand over the “gas reduction station” to the Walidiya power station, which operates the old unit with natural gas.
Until the time of writing this investigation, the Ministry of Petroleum had not set a date for the Assiut power plant to deliver the gas reduction station, according to Mokhtar.
Between waiting for the power station to use the new type of gas, Hana Abdo is still suffering from illness and spends her days between going to the Oncology Institute and thinking about “her daughter’s marriage.” Alaa Abdullah and his neighbors close the house well so that the black smoke does not seep into their homes; Whereas, researcher Muhammad Hassab al-Nabi flips through his papers and symbols of his equations in search of a definitive solution that satisfies the concerned parties alike.