Northern Iraq oil waste dumping threatens Tigris River

The worst environmental practices of the Saddam dictatorship (themselves a result of sanctions) are being revived under US occupation in Iraq’s oil industry. Thank goodness this report by James Glanz made the front page of the New York Times yesterday (online at Kurdish Aspect). But will it make any difference? In its inimitably annoying way, the Times buried some of the most salient facts deep in the story, or left them out completely. We have added emphasis and annotation.

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 18 — 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 region, which is dotted with villages and crisscrossed by itinerant sheep herders, but also contains Iraq’s great northern refinery complex at Baiji.

The fires are no longer burning, but the suffocating plumes of smoke they created carried as far as 40 miles downwind to Tikrit, the provincial capital that formed Saddam Hussein’s base of power.

An Iraqi environmental engineer who has visited the dumping area described it as a kind of black swampland 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.”

The area contains perhaps 30 villages on both sides of the Tigris River as well as a few shepherds with no fixed addresses, said Ahmed Mahmoud, an engineer who runs the assessment and monitoring department of the environmental office in Tikrit. Averaging a few hundred mud houses and perhaps 2,500 residents each, the villages have names like Zuwiya, Mesahag and Upper, Middle and Lower Halej.

Most of them depend on water from wells or the river, and about a dozen sit immediately between the river and the oozing bogs, which in places are no farther than 800 yards from the river’s edge, Mr. Mahmoud said. He added that at least some of the black oil was already seeping into the river.

Exactly how far those pollutants will travel is unknown, but the Tigris passes through dozens of population centers from Baghdad to Basra. In the past, oil slicks created when insurgents struck oil pipelines in the Baiji area have traveled the entire length of the river.

As much as 40 percent of the petroleum processed at Iraq’s damaged and outdated refineries pours forth as black oil, the heavy, viscous substance that used to be extensively exported to more efficient foreign operations for further refining. But the insurgency has stalled government-controlled exports by taking control of roadways and repeatedly hitting pipelines in the area, Iraqi and American officials have said.

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 Baiji and dumped in a mountainous area called Makhul.

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 open valleys, according to Mr. Younis, who works in the province’s Department of Environment and Health Safety.

The elected governor of the province that contains Baiji and Makhul [Salahaddin] said in an interview that he was outraged by what was happening there. “I call upon the United Nations and the United States administration to make haste in saving the people of Baiji and Tikrit from an environmental catastrophe,” said the governor, Hamad Hmoud al-Qaisi.

But with few options for disposing of Baiji’s current production of black oil and so much at stake for the Iraqi economy, it is unclear whether the government will even be able to hold the line on the burning at Makhul. A United States official in Baghdad, speaking anonymously according to official procedure, said earlier this month that Baiji 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 H. Faraj, director of economics and marketing at the Iraqi Oil Ministry.

The dumping and burning has embarrassed ministry officials and exposed major gaps in the American-designed reconstruction program, even as President Bush appeals to the international community for much more rebuilding money in the wake of his visit to Baghdad.

Mussab H. al-Dujayli, a technical expert at the State Oil Marketing Organization, said the large-scale dumping defied sound engineering practice. “The consequences of it are dreadful,” he 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 Baiji, Mr. Qaisi, the governor, formed a technical committee that investigated and wrote a report warning of severe environmental consequences if the practice was not stopped.

“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,” Mr. Qaisi said.

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

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

The United States official who discussed Baiji’s level of oil production said that 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 from September 2003 to 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 Baiji fully loaded every day to remove the current production of black oil. Simply finding that number of working vehicles and loading them quickly enough would be challenging under the best of circumstances, Mr. Uloum said.

Aside from the dangers of the road, Iraqi officials have been saying for months that trucking companies are often controlled by local gangs, smugglers and insurgents.

Mr. Uloum said he had never allowed the black oil to be thrown on the open ground or burned during his tenures. “This is pollution, environmental problem,” he said. “We should care about it, especially when you talk about the water, the river.”

The lower grades of fuel oil are a byproduct of refineries the world over. But modern refineries can get far more gasoline, kerosene and other high grades of fuel out of crude than Iraq’s decrepit installations, despite faltering American efforts to rebuild them.

Before the 1991 Persian Gulf war and the trade embargo that began the year before, Iraq had little trouble selling black oil abroad, either shipping it overland or mixing it with crude oil that was exported through pipelines.

The embargo made that impossible, and in 1992, Iraqi engineers began drilling deep holes into Makhul, said Adnan Sammaraie, an Iraqi engineer who was then an Oil Ministry official and worked on the plans for the project.

The idea was to pump black oil and other refinery byproducts inside the mountains, where countless miles of cracks, caves and fissures could in theory contain almost limitless volumes, Mr. Sammaraie said. But the system was improperly monitored and it malfunctioned almost immediately, coughing up black oil and other polluted wastes and pouring them over the mountain range.

Engineers shut Makhul down, not for environmental reasons per se, but rather out of fear that the seeping oil would reach the Tigris and flow downstream toward the town of Auja, Mr. Hussein’s hometown, which sits on the riverbanks near Tikrit. “Everyone was scared to death,” Mr. Sammaraie said.

Ultimately, the engineers began reinjecting the black oil into wells in the oil fields around Kirkuk, 60 miles northeast of Baiji. That practice, too, has been criticized by international oil experts, who call it wasteful and often damaging to the wells. “These are solutions that we were forced to do,” said Thamir Ghadban, another former oil minister.

The country was much less compelled to use those solutions after the American-led invasion in 2003, when the trade embargo ended. The refineries are still not back to their full capacity, but the insurgency has made it difficult to export even the lessened levels of black oil again, and the pipeline carrying it to the Kirkuk oil fields was struck at least once by saboteurs, Mr. Uloum said.

So, gingerly at first, the government began sending black oil to Makhul again, intending to use the belly of the mountain range as a storage depot, just as envisioned in the original design. In 2004, about three million barrels of black oil, an average of 8,000 barrels a day, went to Makhul, Mr. Uloum said, adding that the rate remained steady through at least the first few months of 2005.

“I didn’t have any problems with the idea itself,” Mr. Uloum said.

But he said that as the area became increasingly dangerous, it was unlikely that the proper monitoring was taking place.

And by the spring of this year, several Iraqi officials said, they were receiving reports that Makhul had malfunctioned again and that refinery workers were spewing prodigious amounts of black oil into the mountain valleys and lighting it on fire.

“I’m sorry for the status of our oil industry,” said Sabah Jumah, a former Oil Ministry official. “It was the best in the Middle East.”

The fact that this inefficiency is being tolerated by Iraq’s US overseers also indicates (once again) that the point of the war was and is less “getting the oil” (that is, “getting” it for US consumers and to bring down global prices) than getting it under control—locking it up to keep it off the global market (and prices be damned). Better it be wasted in spills and pipeline blasts than sold on good terms to the Russians, Chinese, or even the French.

See our last posts on Iraq and the struggle for Iraq’s oil.