Clean up of Iraqi toxic sites begins

A highly polluted former industrial site in Iraq is due to be cleaned up by the UNEP following a study of environmental hot-spots.

The Al Quadissiya site occupies 50 hectares on a flat plain between the Tigris and Euphrates. It was once a complex of metal plating and machining units manufacturing products including small arms.

However, the facility was damaged by ground and air strikes during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and subsequently looted in the aftermath of the conflict.

A UNEP assessment team report concludes that the most pressing issue to deal with is the dispersed piles of sodium cyanide pellets which were used in the hardening process for small arms manufacture.

Several tonnes of the acutely toxic compound are believed to be at the site along with heavy metal waste such as lead, nickel and cadmium.

The UNEP has secured US$900,000 for cleaning up the site which is just one of five ‘priority’ sites among 50 of the hotspots identified. Some of the money may be used to decontaminate another priority site, the Al Suwaira pesticide warehouse complex 50km south east of Baghdad, although this doesn’t pose such a health risk as it has been sealed off from the public.

The report highlights the fact that Iraq has “a significant legacy of contaminated and derelict industrial and military sites” and warns that the destruction of the country’s military arsenal is creating new problems at scrap yards and munitions dumps.

There are also recommendations covering the oil industry’s contaminated sites and one for the establishment of a hazardous waste facility.

Overall, approximately US$40 million is needed to meet the recommendations in full.

“Wars, conflicts and the poor environmental management of the previous regime have left their scars on the Iraqi people and the Iraqi environment,” said Klaus Toepfor, 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.”

He said that one of the more positive outcomes of the study was the training it had given Iraqi people from various ministries including the Ministry of Environment which will allow the government to assess and deal with potentially hazardous sites over the coming years.

The clean up should begin in December this year.

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