Toxic Sites in Iraq to be Made Safe
UN Environment Helping Boost Iraq’s Capacity to Handle Environmental Legacy of War, Conflict and Looting
Geneva/Nairobi, 10 November 2005 - Clean up of a highly polluted industrial site south of Baghdad is being launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) following a study of environmental ‘hot spots’ in Iraq.
The Al Quadissiya metal plating facility has been found to contain numerous hazardous wastes including several tonnes of health hazardous cyanide compounds.
The six month clean up programme, which may start as soon as December, will entail removing, storing and treating the cyanide wastes to reduce the public health risks currently considered to be ‘severe”.
The facility, which was bombed, looted and then demolished in an uncontrolled manner during and after the 2003 conflict, is one of five priority sites studied by Iraqi experts under a UNEP managed project.
The five sites, details of which are contained in the report Assessment of Environmental ‘Hotspots’ in Iraq, were among a list of 50 sites presented to the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment for consideration and selection.
Some of the $900,000 secured for cleaning up the Al Quadissiya site may also be used to detoxify another of the priority sites. This is the Al Suwaira pesticide warehouse complex sited 50km south east of the Iraqi capital.
Pesticide pollution there is also considered a potential public health risk although a lesser one when compared with the metal plating plant.
The five preliminary sites investigated are likely to be the tip of the iceberg in terms of environmental hot spots.
The report points out that the country “has a significant legacy of contaminated and derelict industrial and military sites”.
It also warns that the destruction of the Iraqi military arsenal is creating new contamination and hazardous wastes problems at scrap yards and munitions dumps which could be better managed through better working practices and basic planning.
There are also recommendations covering the oil industry’s contaminated sites and one for the establishment of a hazardous waste treatment facility.
Overall close to $40 million is needed to meet the report’s recommendations in full.
Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “Wars, conflicts, instability and the poor environmental management of the previous regime have the left their scars on the Iraqi people and the Iraqi environment. If the country is to have a brighter and less risky future it is incumbent on the international community to help the authorities there deal with these pollution hot spots. A good and positive example of capacity building and technology support”.
“We now have findings from our first assessments and clear recommendations and a follow up plan for dealing with the hazards. I am grateful to the Japanese government for their support,” he added.
“One of the more positive outcomes of this work is that it has led to the training of Iraqis from various ministries including the Ministry of Environment in the latest, state of the art, sampling techniques. It will allow the government to carry forward this work so that all potentially hazardous sites can be assessed and dealt with over the coming years,” said Mr. Toepfer.
Narmin Othman, the Iraqi Environment Minister, added:” Iraq faces a number of environmental challenges, some of them directly related to the conflict but many as a result of the years of lack of investment in environmental management. The newly established Ministry of the Environment is currently addressing these challenges. UNEP has been a partner since the ministry’s inception”.
“This project, the result of which are launched today, is only a beginning. The challenge now is identify and assess all such areas of contamination in Iraq and systematically restore them. We hope to have the support of the international community as we undertake this task,” she said.
The assessments of the five sites was conducted in April 2005 funded by a contribution from the Japanese government to the United Nations Development Group’s Iraqi Trust Fund earmarked for UNEP.
The Japanese contribution is part of a wider package of activities aimed at strengthening the Iraqi government’s ability to manage its environmental affairs by “environmental assessment and capacity building”.
In previous post conflict work, for example in the Balkans and Afghanistan, UNEP’s Post Conflict Assessment Branch has carried out its own sampling and field studies.
However the security situation in Iraq has precluded direct sampling by a UNEP team. Instead it was decided to train Iraqis from various ministries to carry out the work with the samples tested at laboratories in Europe.
In total, just over 30 experts from Iraq were trained in assessment techniques at workshops in Jordan, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
They were also issued with site assessment equipment including lap tops and helped with the interpretation of results gathered from the five priority sites.
Al Qadissiya metal plating facility
The facility, built in the 1980’s, occupies at 50 hectare site on a flat plain between the Tigris and Euphrates.
It once was a complex of metal plating and machining units manufacturing products including small arms.
During the 2003 conflict the facility was damaged by ground and air strikes and following the conflict was “comprehensively and repetitively looted”.
The assessment team took over sixty soil, waste, chemical and surface water samples at the site as well as taking over 100 photographs.
The report concludes that the most pressing issue is the dispersed piles of sodium cyanide pellets. The chemical was used in the hardening process for small arms such as rifles.
Several tonnes of the acutely toxic compound, which is lethal at a dose of less than one gramme, are believed to be at the site. There is concern that children entering the site could be exposed via the skin or by accidental ingestion.
Others concerns centre around heavy metal wastes including lead, nickel, cadmium and antimony.
The clean up operation has various aims including collecting the most hazardous materials in special drums for safe storage off site.
Al Suwaira Pesticide Warehouses
This four-hectare complex, located 1.5km north of the town of Al Suwaira, was used to store, mix and dispatch a range of pesticides over its 30 year life.
These included mercury, zinc and calcium compounds as well as organo-chlorine and organo-phosphorous substances like Lindane, Heptachlor and DDT.
After March 2003, it was looted leading to containers being smashed and pesticides being spread around the buildings.
The assessment team took 20 soil and waste and chemical samples backed up by over 100 photographs and video footage.
The report concludes that the site, predominantly the contaminated warehouses, represents a low human health risk. This is because the site is currently secured keeping trespassers out.
“Approximately 100 cubic metres of waste pesticides are present in the warehouses” and these are “unsafe to use or even enter and will remain in that condition unless decontaminated,” says the report.
UNEP is proposing to decontaminate the site by vacuuming out the pesticide wastes and spaying the inside of the warehouses to neutralize remaining pesticide residues.
Old and damaged pesticide containers will need to be removed, sealed and stored safely elsewhere.
The Khan Dhari Petrochemicals Warehouse Site
The facility, located 30km west of Baghdad, contained several thousand tones of refinery chemicals until it was looted and partially burnt down in March 2003.
The report says the site represents a risk to the health of site workers as a result of damaged drums and chemicals.
UNEP is recommending that the damaged buildings be demolished and that there is clean up of the damaged drums and chemical spills before operations and re-started.
Al Mishraq Sulphur Mining Complex
Located 50km south of Mosul, the complex is one of the world’s largest sulphur mines.
In June 2003 a catastrophic fire burnt up to 300,000 tonnes of stockpiled sulphur.
The report estimates that the site currently presents a low risk to human health. But calls for upgrading of the site before any moves are made to re-open it so as to improve the complex’s environmental performance and to minimize problems such as acid drainage.
Ouireej Military Scrap Yard
Ouireej, a planned residential area situated 15km south of Baghdad, became in 2003 a main dumping and processing site for military scrap and destroyed Iraqi weapons.
It once held hundreds of potentially hazardous items including tanks and missiles containing unexploded ordnance and chemicals.
The site represents a risk to human health, especially site workers, but also residents.
UNEP recommends that the military and civilian scrapping operations should be separated from the residential development.
Notes to Editors
The full report, Assessment of Environmental ‘Hot Spots’ in Iraq, can be found in English at http://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/Iraq_ESA.pdf
An Arabic version of the executive summary can be found at http://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/ES_Iraq_ESA_a.pdf
And a Japanese version at http://postconflict.unep.ch/publications/ES_Iraq_ESA_j.pdf
For More Information Please Contact Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson, Office of the Executive Director, on Tel: 254 20 623084, Mobile: 254 733 632755 or when traveling 41 79 596 5737, e-mail: email@example.com.
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