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Friday, June 30, 2006

Iraq Oil Swamps

An environmental disaster is brewing in the heartland of Iraq's northern Sunni-led insurgency, where Iraqi officials say that in a desperate move to dispose of millions of barrels of an oil refinery byproduct called "black oil," the government pumped it into open mountain valleys and leaky reservoirs next to the Tigris River and set it on fire.

The resulting huge black bogs are threatening the river and the precious groundwater in the area. The suffocating plumes of smoke are carried as far as 65 kilometers, or 40 miles, downwind to Tikrit, the provincial capital that formed Saddam Hussein's base of power.

An Iraqi environmental engineer who has visited the area described it as a kind of black swampland consisting of oil-saturated terrain and large standing pools of oil stretching across several mountain valleys. The clouds of smoke, said the engineer, Ayad Younis, "were so heavy that they obstructed breathing and visibility in the area and represent a serious environmental danger."

At Iraq's damaged and outdated refineries, as much as 40 percent of what is produced pours forth as this heavy, viscous substance, which used to be extensively exported to more efficient foreign operations for further refining. But the insurgency has stalled government- controlled exports from the area containing Iraq's major northern refinery complex at Bayji, the officials say.

So the backed-up black oil - known to the rest of the world as the lower grades of fuel oil - was sent along a short pipeline from Bayji and dumped in a mountainous area, called Makhool.

A series of complaints handed up the Iraqi government chain were conveyed to oil industry officials, and as of last weekend the fires had at least temporarily stopped, but black oil was still being poured into the valleys, according to Younis, who works in the province's Department of Environment and Health Safety.

With few options for disposing of Bayji's current production of black oil and so much at stake for the Iraqi economy, it is unclear whether the government will be able to hold the line on the burning at Makhool. A U.S. official in Baghdad said last week that Bayji was still turning out about 90,000 barrels a day of refined products, which would yield about 36,000 barrels a day of black oil.

Iraq's refineries will grind to a halt if the black oil does not go somewhere.

"Unless we find a way of dealing with the fuel oil, our factories will not work," said Shamkhi Faraj, director of economics and marketing affairs at the Oil Ministry.

The dumping and burning has embarrassed officials in the Oil Ministry and exposed major gaps in the American-designed reconstruction program.

Mussab al-Dujayli, a technical expert at the State Oil Marketing Organization, which he directed until March, said that the disposal defied sound engineering practice.

"The consequences of it are dreadful," Dujayli said. "God forbid."

Still, the complaints that halted the burning, however temporarily, represent something virtually unheard of in a country that has long had few if any checks on pollution by government industries: a backlash by local political and environmental officials.

Last month, motivated by citizen complaints and whistle-blowing employees at Bayji, the elected governor of the province that contains Bayji and Tikrit formed a technical committee that investigated and wrote a report warning of severe environmental consequences if the practice was not stopped.

The governor, Hamad Hmoud al- Qaisi, said in an interview that he was outraged by what his committee had found was happening in the mountains at Makhool. "I call upon the United Nations and the United States administration to make haste in saving the people of Bayji and Tikrit from an environmental catastrophe," Qaisi said.

"The wastes there are untreatable because the terrain is rocky and contains many caves that allow these wastes to slip through and eventually reach the groundwater where nearby towns depend on wells," Qaisi said.

The concerns quickly reached Narmin Othman Hasan, the minister of the environment, who said in an interview that she had written to oil officials complaining of the practice. After that, the fires went out.

Adel al-Qazzaz, manager of state- owned North Oil, which has immediate responsibility for operations in the north, repeatedly declined to respond to questions on the fuel oil after he was reached by phone and e-mail in Kirkuk.

The American official who discussed Bayji's level of oil production said the black oil could be taken out by truck and that one of the state-owned marketing companies had undertaken to do so.

But Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, who served two stints as oil minister between September 2003 and January 2006, said that plan probably had not been fully worked through. The roads in the Sunni badlands of the north are dangerous and sometimes impassable. And about 150 large tankers would have to leave Bayji fully loaded every day to remove the current production of black oil. Simply finding that number of working vehicles and loading them in a timely fashion would be challenging under the best of circumstances, Uloum said.

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