From: Matthew Green, Reuters
Published September 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Iraqi scientists to wage war on pollution

NAIROBI, Kenya — Iraqi scientists will assess pollution ranging from oil spills to scrap metal from destroyed military vehicles in an effort to tackle environmental damage in the war-ravaged country, the United Nations said this week.


With violence gripping Iraq, environmentalists are struggling to draw attention to damage caused during last year's U.S.-led invasion, the 1991 Gulf War, and waste discharged by industry struggling with years of sanctions.


A pilot scheme starting in the next month will test samples from five of the more than 300 locations in Iraq considered to be contaminated by various pollutants, including a sulphur mine in the north and the Al-Doura refinery north of Baghdad.


"My country is faced with a wide range of pressing issues that must be addressed if the Iraqi people are to enjoy a stable, healthy, and prosperous future," Environment Minister Mishkat Moumin said in a statement released by the United Nations Environment Program's (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi.


UNEP officials forecast it would take years and millions of dollars to clean up damage to air, water, and soil from chronic environmental problems compounded by wars and recent looting.


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"The environmental consequences of looting seem to be quite serious.... A lot of chemicals were located at some of these factories and storage facilities," Pekka Haavisto, head of the UNEP post-conflict assessment unit, told a Geneva news briefing.


UNEP is coordinating the project in cooperation with the Iraqi government as part of a wider $4.7 million scheme funded by donors including Japan, Germany, and Britain.The agency spent $12 million on four clean-up projects in Serbia after the Kosovo conflict, which took four years to complete.


Depleted Uranium


Environmentalists and antinuclear activists have linked depleted uranium used in U.S. and British munitions to higher rates of cancer and birth defects in Iraq following the 1991 war, although the study is not focusing on this issue.


In a separate plan, UNEP has requested $2.5 million from donors to assess sites that scientists suspect are polluted by depleted uranium, which is so dense it can pierce tank armor.


Britain's Department of Defense has informed UNEP that some 1.9 tons of depleted uranium were fired in southern Iraq during the conflict last year, according to Haavisto.


But the United States has not provided any information on where it dropped such munitions, despite requests, UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said.


The Pentagon says it has not found any evidence that the metal causes long-term health problems.


Iraqi scientists, who have received training from UNEP, will collect samples and share them with UNEP and its network of independent laboratories in Europe.


"When the samples are shared and analyzed, we can give advice on how to protect local populations and the immediate risk at the locations," Haavisto said.


The initial sites to be assessed include a pipeline where sabotage attacks by guerrillas opposed to the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi have caused discharges of oil.


Scientists also plan to visit the Al-Mishraq Sulphur State Company to assess pollution from sulphur fires, and the Midland Al-Doura Refinery Stores to investigate spills of more than 5,000 tons of chemicals, including tetraethyl lead.


Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in GenevaSource: Reuters


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