United Nations Environment Programme

United Nations Environment Programme

Assessment of Environmental ‘Hot Spots’ in Iraq


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Executive summary


In July 2004, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was awarded a project for “Strengthening environmental governance in Iraq through environmental assessment and capacity building”. This project was supported by the UN Trust Fund for Iraq through funds made available by the Government of Japan. One of the major elements of the project was to assess contaminated sites in Iraq, in partnership with Iraq’s Ministry of the Environment (MoEn).

UNEP’s Approach to Environmental Site Assessment in Iraq Since the prevailing security constraints prevented UN experts from travelling to Iraq to undertake field work, the project was designed such that capacity building activities were undertaken outside Iraq while field work was done by Iraqi officials. The site assessment project had the following major components:

  1. Identifying sites within Iraq which are potentially contaminated and creating a database which will assist in prioritizing intervention;
  2. Building the capacity and institutional knowledge in the MoEn to enable it to conduct site assessment programmes;
  3. Detailed assessment of five priority sites (See figure E.1 at the end of this chapter), via a phased process of desk studies, site inspections, environmental sampling, laboratory analysis, interpretation and qualitative risk assessment;
  4. Preliminary assessment of contaminated land issues in Iraq at the national level. Issues addressed included a broad range of current problems including conflict-related impacts, identifying needs and setting the priorities for future policy and infrastructure development.

The field teams were provided with questionnaires, cameras and global positioning systems to bring back information about the sites visited to the UNEP expert team in Geneva. The data collected in the field were supplemented with information collected from satellite images and secondary sources.

Site and national scale assessment work resulted in a range of specific recommendations and associated cost estimates. As of September 2005, the project has also resulted in an urgent follow-up project to be managed by UNEP in late 2005.

Project Implementation

1. Capacity building

A course of intensive theoretical and practical training on environmental site assessments was provided to delegates from MoEn and other Ministries. Training courses included planning site assessments, site assessment techniques, preparing sampling and analyses protocols, field sampling and analyses and, finally, risk assessment. A number of field instruments were procured and staff trained in their use. Iraqi experts were trained in health and safety practices for undertaking field work and were provided with appropriate personal protective equipment. Having successfully completed their fieldwork on the five sites, the MoEn now plans to commence a screening and assessment programme for over 100 other sites.

2. Assessment of priority sites

Five sites for priority assessment were selected by the MoEn. The sites were mainly in the industrialised region surrounding Baghdad. All were damaged or in an environmentally poor condition, due to either looting, fire, conflict or poor operating practices. None of the sites visited was operational in the conventional sense.

The main findings and recommendations for the five priority sites are: Al Qadissiya metal plating facility. This facility, located 30 km south of Baghdad, was successively bombed, looted and then demolished in an uncontrolled manner. Hazardous wastes including several tonnes of high purity cyanide compounds are scattered across an unsecured site accessible to the public. The site represents a severe risk to human health.

The recommendations are to contain and/or remove the most hazardous wastes as a matter of urgency and this is being addressed in a follow up project. Al Suwaira pesticides warehouse complex.
This facility, located 50 km south east of Baghdad, was looted in March 2003 and over 100 tonnes of obsolete and highly hazardous pesticide were stolen. In the process the warehouse interiors
were coated with pesticide dust and littered with damaged containers. The site in its current state does not represent a severe human health risk, but only due to controls preventing access to the
warehouses. The warehouses are unsafe to use or even enter.

The recommendations are to re-package the pesticide wastes and decontaminate the warehouses to allow their continued use. Hazardous waste at Al Qadissiya Pesticide waste coating the floor inside the
Al Suwaira warehouse This facility, located 30 km west of Baghdad, contained several thousand tonnes of refinery chemicals until it was looted and partially burnt down in March 2003. Damaged drums and spilled chemicals cover a large part of the site. The site in its current state represents a risk to the health of site workers, making it unfit for use.

The recommendations are to demolish the damaged buildings and clean up the damaged drums and chemical spills prior to recommencing operations.

The Al Mishraq complex, located 50 km south of Mosul, is one of the world’s largest sulphur mines. In June 2003 it suffered a catastrophic fire which consumed up to 300,000 tonnes of stockpiled
pure sulphur and sulphur waste and caused regional air pollution, crop destruction and at least two deaths. The site is now idle and semi-derelict due to looting. Surface and groundwater pollution from
the Al Mishraq site was significant at the time of its operation but has now largely ceased. Preliminary work in relation to the 2003 sulphur fire indicates that the permanent effects on the environment are localised and limited. The site in its current state represents a low risk to human health and the environment, principally due to acidic surface water ponds.

The recommendations, in the event that it reopens, are to carry out a comprehensive upgrade of the facility to improve its environmental performance and resolve existing legacies such as acid drainage.
Ouireej military scrap yard site. Ouireej is a planned residential area located 15 km south of Baghdad that in 2003 was allocated as one of the main dumping and processing sites for military scrap arising from the conflict and the subsequent destruction of the Iraq arsenal.

At the peak of activity the site held hundreds of items of potentially hazardous military hardware including tanks and missiles still containing unexploded ordnance and hazardous chemicals. Two people were reportedly killed, by explosions and by poisoning, in the uncontrolled scrap metal recovery operations that occurred over the period mid 2003 – early 2005. The site in its current state represents a risk to human health, principally to site workers, but also to site residents.

The recommendations, in summary, are to separate the military and civilian scrapping operations and the residential development to mitigate the obvious risks of combining all these land uses.

3. Assessment of national scale issues

The key findings of the assessment of national scale issues on contaminated sites and hazardous waste are as follows:

Industrial and military legacy of contamination and hazardous waste. Iraq has a significant legacy of contaminated and derelict industrial and military sites. Many facilities are unlikely to re-start operations but a portion of the sites in urban areas may be redeveloped for other uses. These sites have major problems with hazardous waste and variable but generally lesser problems with contaminated soil and water. In a minority of cases, the sites represent a severe risk to human health, specifically to site workers and trespassers. Each of the sites has to be assessed separately in a systematic manner so as to identify specific issues and corrective actions.

Reduction in industrially sourced pollution. The closure of many of the sites has resulted in a net reduction in waste production and pollution loading of the air and water, as many large-scale polluting processes have now ceased.

Special case post-conflict sites – military scrap yards and munitions disposal. The destruction of the Iraq military arsenal is creating isolated cases of new contamination and hazardous wastes. Some basic improvements in working practices and planning could reduce the environmental and health risks and reduce the cost of future cleanup.

Oil industry. The oil industry is a major source of land contamination and hazardous wastes, which needs a comprehensive study. It is, however, expected that the oil industry will have the resources to tackle this issue in the longer term provided there is a legal framework which promotes such assessments.

Policy and legislation. In the longer term, national strategies, policies, legislation and enforcement are needed for hazardous waste management and contaminated land. National facilities for hazardous waste management: Currently there are no properly designed facilities for hazardous waste management in Iraq. Availability of properly designed hazardous waste management is essential for undertaking clean up work in individual contaminated sites.

4. Recommendations

Recommendations and associated cost estimates have been developed for both the priority sites and the national issues. They include urgent work to reduce the health risk from hazardous waste at the worst sites. The summarised national level recommendations and associated cost estimates are:

  • Identify the remaining sites warranting quick corrective action – US$ 400,000.
  • Corrective action programme at up to 20 sites – US$ 2,000,000.
  • Capacity building for corrective action – US$ 400,000.
  • Construction of a hazardous waste treatment facility – US$ 22,000,000.
  • Oil industry management of related contaminated sites – over US$ 10 million.
  • Buy back and separation of hazardous military scrap – several US$ million.
  • Development of national strategies, policies and legislation – US$ 300,000.

5. Urgent follow up project

Subsequent to the completion of the site assessment project and based on the initial risk assessment, UNEP proposed to the UN Trust Fund a project to urgently contain and clean up the hazardous material at Al Qadissiya and possibly at Al Suwaira. This has been supported by the Trust Fund, through its Fast Track approach. The work will involve;

  • Removal and safe storage of the cyanide waste at Al Qadissiya;
  • Decontamination of the warehouses at Al Suwaira;
  • Building the capacity of the Iraqi ministries to carry out similar works in future.

The project is planned for commencement in September 2005 and substantial completion by February 2006.

For more information and to download the full version of this report go to: http://www.unep.org/

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