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An American Engineer in Jordan

Jordan

Photo courtesy of Thabet Tolaymet

A description of the Russeifah solid waste landfill outside of Amman, Jordan reads like a nightmare. There is the constant haze of dust blown off huge piles of abandoned phosphate ore. Burning tires—set ablaze by people looking to sell the underlying steel mesh as scrap—create rising plumes of thick, black, oily smoke. A baffling mix of smells, from the sweet, rotting-fruit-like odor of escaping gases, to the acrid stench of decomposing animal carcasses from the nearby biogas plant, overwhelm the senses. Danger lurks, too; occasionally these same gases ignite, consuming unsuspecting visitors.

Thabet Tolaymat, a Syrian-born, American-educated, environmental engineer working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Risk Management Research Laboratory, who speaks both English and Arabic, is working to end this environmental nightmare. By tapping his expertise in solid waste management, including radiation risk assessment at phosphate mines, he aims to help transform the area to one more in keeping with surrounding Amman, the thriving metropolis and gleaming capital city of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan.

Tolaymat was granted an eight-week assignment in Jordan under the Embassy Science Fellows Program, a partnership between U.S. technical agencies (including EPA) and the U.S. Department of State, designed to provide short-term technical expertise in science, mathematics, and engineering. That eight-week fellowship turned into a 12-week stay, due to the success of the relationship.

"I was surprised when I first arrived with how clean Amman was," says Tolaymat. "I am familiar with this part of the world. I must say that solid waste handling in general is very good in Amman." But Tolaymat says the Russeifah site is another story. "It is very unsanitary. It's a dump; you can't call it a landfill."

Russeifah had been used for phosphate mining from 1963 until the mid 1980's. The mining company then moved its operations elsewhere, leaving behind huge piles of phosphate ore and exposing 50 to 60 feet deep pits. Rather than fence them off or restrict access, the pits were used as makeshift landfill sites, with a variety of materials dumped illegally into the unlined pits.

The location is also home to scores of poor families displaced in the early 1990s by the Persian Gulf War. Having nowhere else to go, they built and established new homes at or near the site. The new residents were soon joined by businesses. Now, they all complain about the odor and the dust. Tolaymat points to the naturally occurring radiation from phosphate ore as another concern.

Tolaymat developed a two-pronged approach to the Russeifah problem. First, he identified a number of steps to clean up the existing site, including ways to stop illegal dumping and removing the giant phosphate piles. In addition, he's exploring ways to limit groundwater contamination, and close off and contour the landfill. Second, Tolaymat engages local and regional government officials to develop more stringent environmental laws aimed at preventing any recurrence of these issues at Russeifah or any other sites in Jordan.

With these measures in place, Tolaymat is optimistic that this part of Jordan will no longer be identified for its vicious odors, menacing fires, or phosphate dust clouds, but rather for its historical significance, natural beauty, and thriving economy. For the local residents, it will be a dream come true.

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