23 Oct 2019 Story Disasters & conflicts

Microbes offer hope of cleaning up Iraq conflict’s pollution legacy

Photo by Hassan Partow/UNEP

A biological remediation pilot project seeking to enhance nature’s own ability to clear up oil spills in Iraq’s conflict-affected areas has been launched in Kirkuk by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in collaboration with the state-owned North Oil Company and the Ministry of Health and Environment, and facilitation support from the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq. The initiative seeks to harness naturally occurring soil bacteria as a powerful natural ally to decontaminate poisoned land.

Over three years ago in summer 2016, the residents of Qayyarah—a small town of around 25,000 people, some 60 km south of Mosul—were caught in the line of fire as so-called Islamic State fighters torched nineteen nearby oil wells. So thick were the clouds of smoke, that people could not distinguish day from night for weeks in what infamously came to be known as the “Daesh winter”.

Rivers of crude oil flowed through Qayyarah’s streets and into seasonal wadis as oil wells spewed tens of thousands of barrels of oil relentlessly for months. The specter of an even worse environmental catastrophe was heightened as the oil slick migrated to less than three kilometers from the mainstem of the Tigris River, Iraq’s water lifeline.

Following an epic battle to control the oil fires that took nearly a year, North Oil Company, which manages the oil fields of northern Iraq, is currently collecting an estimated 20,000 tonnes of remaining oil waste in Qayyarah into around a dozen large pits.

Progress, however, has been slow and pools of heavy viscous oil remain on the doorsteps of entire neighborhoods and households, who complain about the impacts of noxious fumes on their children’s health.

“In some places, the layer of heavy oil is two to three meters thick, and long stretches of wadi channels are now effectively tarmac roads on which cars can be driven,” observed Mohammed Dawood, head of Qayarrah oil refinery’s environmental unit. Furthermore, Environment Ministry officials expressed concern that exceptionally heavy rains and flash floods of the 2018/19 winter season washed out oil from the holding pits into the Tigris River.

While oil production restarted in Qayyarah immediately after the conflict ended in June 2017, reaching currently an estimated 40,000 barrels per day, little has been done to clean up the conflict’s toxic aftermath.

“Oil companies need to give at least equal attention to protecting human health and the environment as they give to oil production and profits. This requires the Ministry of Oil to provide the necessary resources and enhance the environmental management capacity of North Oil Company,” remarked Waleed Hussein, who leads the Environment Ministry’s oil pollution control team.

Microbes that naturally break down petroleum offer one promising and affordable solution to Iraq’s oil pollution predicament. While the idea of using oil microbes devouring oil spills is not a new one in Iraq, its potential is barely recognized by national oil companies, much less applied.

In a bid to move from theory to practice, the UN Environment Programme in collaboration with the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq delivered a four-day hands-on training workshop on remediation of oil spills in September 2019. The workshop was hosted at North Oil Company’s headquarters in the historic Baba Gurgur oil field where oil was first discovered in Iraq in 1927. Twenty-nine oil experts from the ministries of environment and oil, including national oil companies from across Iraq, participated in the training event which examined a broad spectrum of techniques to remediate oil pollution.

“The key point about bioremediation is that it’s an affordable and relatively simple process, and so readily applicable in treating the many oil spills caused by the conflict as well as from Iraq’s expanding oil industry,’’ said Mike Cowing, the UNEP expert who designed the demonstration trial at North Oil Company headquarters.

Iraq government experts examine the process of preparing windrows for biological treatment of oil contaminated soil.
Iraq government experts examine the process of preparing windrows for biological treatment of oil contaminated soil. Photo by Hassan Partow/UNEP

“By adding nutrients from manure, bulking agents like wood chips and water, we are simply creating the ideal conditions for bacteria to thrive and speeding up the natural process of breaking down the oil,” underscored Ian Goodacre, director of the RSK Group branch office in Basra, an international environmental consultancy company which is pioneering Iraq’s first full-fledged bioremediation treatment sites in the Zubayr and Rumaila oil fields, and who is also advising the Kirkuk pilot.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that bioremediation is not a cure-all solution for all of Iraq’s oil spills. The clean-up approach needs to be tailored to the specific conditions of each oil spill considering factors ranging from the type of soil to the chemical characteristics of the crude oil itself. Nevertheless, “bioremediation constitutes a core part of the solution toolbox for clearing many, if not most oil spills in Iraq,” affirmed Cowing.

At the workshop’s conclusion, Jassim Humadi, Iraq’s Deputy Environment Minister and Azad Jaleel, director of North Oil Company’s environment department, committed to working together in promoting the application and dissemination of bioremediation to help clean up oil spills as a matter of priority.  

Jassim Humadi inspecting the newly established pilot biological treatment cell at North Oil Company’s headquarters.
Jassim Humadi inspecting the newly established pilot biological treatment cell at North Oil Company’s headquarters. Photo by Hassan Partow/UNEP

“We are keen to promote biological remediation as a cutting-edge and cost-effective tool not only to fight the huge oil pollution challenges created by the conflict, but also to clear up future oil spills we know will continue to happen,” said Humadi.

Since mid-2017, UNEP has been supporting the Government of Iraq to clean up oil pollution and sustainably manage and recycle the huge volumes of debris created by the ISIL conflict. This training is part of a series of capacity-building events that UNEP is carrying out in Iraq on assessing and remediating oil pollution and is supported by the Government of Norway Oil for Development  programme.

 

For more information, please contact: Hassan Partow, Programme Manager.