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Iraq's Five Most Toxic Sites to Be Decontaminated

GENEVA, Switzerland, November 14, 2005 (ENS) - A polluted industrial site south of Baghdad is the first of five areas selected for cleanup by the Iraqi Ministry of Environment and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) following a study of Iraq's environmental hot spots.

The assessments of the five sites were 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 five sites are part of the legacy of contaminated and derelict industrial and military sites left by the 2003 conflict and its ongoing aftermath and described in the new report, "Assessment of Environmental Hotspots in Iraq."

Othman

Narmin Othman is Iraq's environment minister. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
The authors warn that 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 recommendations covering the oil industry’s contaminated sites and one for the establishment of a hazardous waste treatment facility. Overall, close to US$40 million is needed to meet the report’s recommendations in full.

"War, conflict and instability have the left their scars on the Iraqi people and the Iraqi environment," said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s executive director. "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 followup plan for dealing with the hazards, said Toepfer, expressing gratitude to the Japanese government for their support.

The first site to be addressed under the new cleanup effort is the Al Qadissiya metal plating facility located on a flat plain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It was bombed, looted and then demolished in an uncontrolled manner during and after the 2003 conflict.

drums

Hazardous waste is scattered across the Al Qadissiya site, the assessment team found. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
Al Qadissiya once was a complex of metal-plating and machining units manufacturing products including small arms. The assessment team reports that the site is littered with dispersed piles of sodium cyanide pellets used in the hardening process for small arms such as rifles.

Several metric tons of the acutely toxic compound, which is lethal at a dose of less than one gram, are believed to be at Al Qadissiya. There is concern that children entering the site could be exposed via the skin or by accidental ingestion.

The six month cleanup, which may start as soon as December, entails removing, storing and treating the cyanide wastes. Other concerns center on heavy metal wastes at the site, including lead, nickel, cadmium and antimony.

The five priority sites were selected from a list of 50 locations presented to the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment for consideration and selection.

Some of the $900,000 secured for cleaning up the Al Qadissiya site also may be used to detoxify another of the priority sites, a pesticide warehouse complex situated 50 kilometers (30 miles) southeast of the Iraqi capital.

The Al Suwaira pesticide warehouse complex 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, containers were smashed and pesticides were spread around the buildings. The assessment report concludes that the site represents a low human health risk because it is currently secured, and trespassers are kept out.

pesticides

Pesticides coat the inside of a warehouse at the Al Suwaira complex. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
"Approximately 100 cubic meters 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.

Toepfer said, "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."

Iraqi Environment Minister Narmin Othman said, "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."

The assessment and its recommendations is only a beginning, Othman said. "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."

In previous post-conflict work in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, UNEP’s Post Conflict Assessment Branch has carried out its own sampling and field studies.

But the security situation in Iraq has kept UNEP teams from attempting direct sampling. 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 issued with site assessment equipment, including laptop computers, and helped with the interpretation of results gathered from the five priority sites.

The other three sites include the Khan Dhari Petrochemicals warehouse, located 30 kilometers (20 miles) west of Baghdad. It contained several thousand tons of refinery chemicals until it was looted and partially burned down in March 2003.

kids

Children playing in the Ouireej residential area that is being used as a dump site for military scrap. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
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 cleanup of the damaged drums and chemical spills before operations are re-started.

The Al Mishraq Sulphur Mining Complex located 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Mosul, is one of the world’s largest sulfur mines. In June 2003 an enormous fire burned up to 300,000 metric tons of stockpiled sulfur.

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.

Finally, Ouireej, a planned residential area situated 15 kilometers (10 miles) 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, and to neighborhood residents. UNEP recommends that the military and civilian scrapping operations should be separated from the residential development.

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



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