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
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UNEP News Release
UNEP and Iraqi Environment Ministry to Assess Key Polluted Sites
Nairobi/Geneva, 14 September 2004 – Environmental ‘hot spots’ in Iraq are to be investigated as part of a long term plan to clean up the country after well over a decade of instability and conflict, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced today.
Iraqi scientists, trained in the latest laboratory and field testing skills, will be carrying out tests at a handful of contaminated sites in order to assess their threats to human health, wildlife and the wider environment.
Under the project, coordinated by UNEP in close cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment, the scientists will share samples with UNEP’s Post-Conflict Assessment Unit (PCAU) in Geneva so that testing can be carried out both in Iraq and in independent and reputable laboratories in Europe.
The new initiative underlines the Iraqi government’s commitment to put environmental issues in the centre of the reconstruction efforts, despite the continuing difficulties prevailing in the country.
Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “We estimate that there are more than 300 sites in Iraq considered to be contaminated to various levels by a range of pollutants. This pilot project will focus on up to five of them. Importantly, UNEP will be training Iraqi experts to carry out the tests in order to build the skills and technical-know how in the country. This is part of our long term aim of creating a fully independent Iraqi team of first class environmental assessors”.
“This new project, which has been given generous support from the Government of Japan, will also be assisting the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment to strengthen its skills in other areas including environmental law, natural resources management and taking part in multi-lateral environmental agreements on everything from protecting the ozone layer to trade in endangered species,” he said.
Ms. Mishkat Moumin, the Iraqi Environment Minister, said: “My country is faced with a wide range of pressing issues that must be addressed if the Iraqi people are to enjoy a stable, healthy and prosperous future. Delivering a clean and unpolluted environment is a key piece in this jigsaw puzzle towards a better future. So we warmly welcome our growing cooperation with UNEP and their commitment to strengthen our ministry and help deliver meaningful change on the ground”.
The $4.7 million project has been approved in the framework of UN Iraq Trust Fund.
PCAU has developed a great deal of expertise in the area of post conflict assessment after carrying out projects and in some cases clean ups in regions and countries ranging from the Balkans and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to Afghanistan and Liberia.
The new project, the second involving UNEP and Iraq with funding from Japan to be announced in the past few weeks (see Restoring Iraqi Marshlands Project Launched by UN Environment Programme: 23 July 2004), has pin pointed 10 priority sites from which five are likely to be chosen.
These include the Al-Mishraq Sulphur State Company site where sulphur mining, sulphuric acid and aluminium sulphate manufacturing has been carried out.
Assessments are urgently needed to evaluate the impact of sulphur fires on surrounding soils, vegetation and surface and groundwaters. There are also environmental concerns about air pollution and discharges of effluents.
The Midland (Al-Doura) Refinery Stores are also of concern. The Iraqi Ministry of the Environment want to assess the impact of chemical spills of more than 5,000 tonnes of chemicals, including tetra-ethyl lead, on nearby soils, vegetation and water sources.
Investigations are also planned at the Al Suwaira Seed Store where seeds have been coated with methyl mercury fungicide. Around 50 tonnes of contaminated seeds were stolen during the recent conflict with the potential to contaminate food supplies such as bread. Assessments are also expected to focus on the impact of fungicide residues on soils and water sources.
The project will also identify an oil pipeline site where recent attacks have led to explosions, oil trench fires and oil discharges into the surrounding environment.
There have been recent concerns surrounding recycling of scrap metals from stockpiles of damaged and destroyed military vehicles. It is planned to assess one scrap metal site in order to evaluate possibly uncontrolled releases of contaminants such as halons, asbestos and engine oils to nearby soils and water sources.
Once the precise threats have been established, the UNEP/Iraqi team will be in a position to recommend remedial action if this is considered necessary.
The training of Iraqi experts in areas including scientific and environmental assessment will build on recent training workshops on modern laboratory techniques held in Switzerland and Jordan, funded in this case by the Government of Germany and UK Government’s Department for International Development.
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UNEP News Release