Iraqi Environment Ministry and UN to Assess Polluted Sites

BAGHDAD, Iraq, September 14, 2004 (ENS) - Environmental contamination left by years of war is about to be investigated by Iraqi scientists working on a new $4.7 million project funded by the government of Japan. Impacts on human health and the environment left by oil and chemical fires and spills will be assessed at five of 300 polluted sites across Iraq in preparation for a long term plan to clean up the country.

The project will be coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment, both agencies announced today.

Iraqi Environment Minister Mishkat Moumin 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."

refinery

The Al-Doura Refinery outside Baghdad is a site that may be assessed for contamination. (Photo courtesy ActionLA)
Going in, the scientists will be trained in the latest laboratory and field testing skills, and they will become the nucleus of the first independent Iraqi team of environmental assessors.

They will share samples with UNEP's Post Conflict Assessment Unit in Geneva so that testing of the samples can be carried out both in Iraq and in independent, reputable laboratories in Europe.

"We estimate that there are more than 300 sites in Iraq considered to be contaminated to various levels by a range of pollutants," said UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer. "This pilot project will focus on up to five of them."

Already, the new project has pinpointed 10 priority sites from which five are likely to be chosen.

One priority investigation is the Al-Mishraq Sulphur State Company site 20 miles south of Mosul in northern Iraq where sulphur mining, sulphuric acid and aluminium sulphate manufacturing have taken place.

fire

Sulfur fire at the Al-Mishraq Sulphur State Company near Mosul, June-July 2003. (Photo courtesy NASA)
A month-long fire of unknown cause in June and July 2003 emitted a plume of contaminated gas over Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.

"Assessments are urgently needed," said the UN and Iraqi agencies, "to evaluate the impact of sulfur fires on surrounding soils, vegetation and surface and groundwaters." There are also environmental concerns about air pollution and effluent discharges.

The Midland (Al-Doura) Refinery Stores is another priority site targeted for investigation. The Iraqi Environment Ministry wants to assess the impact of chemical spills of more than 5,000 metric tons 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 metric tons of contaminated seeds that were stolen during the recent conflict have 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.

fire

Fire fighters from Karbala, Iraq battle a fire along the crude oil pipeline west of the city. August 1, 2003. (Photo by Lance Cpl. Nathan Alan Heusdens courtesy U.S. Marine Corps)
Once the precise threats have been established, the UNEP/Iraqi team will be in a position to recommend remedial action.

"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," Toepfer said.

Toepfer says the new initiative underlines the Iraqi government's "commitment to put environmental issues in the center of the reconstruction efforts," despite the continuing difficulties prevailing in the country.

Moumin said, "We warmly welcome our growing cooperation with UNEP and their commitment to strengthen our ministry and help deliver meaningful change on the ground."

The training of Iraqi experts in 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 the UK Department for International Development.