Global Policy Forum

America Leaves Iraq a Toxic Legacy of Dumped Hazardous Materials

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As US troops begin to withdraw from Iraq this year, hazardous waste material from dismantled bases is being dumped locally rather than being sent back to the US for safe disposal. Waste includes engine oil and aviation fuel, discarded batteries, canisters of corrosive liquids and compressed gas cylinders. Some materials are lying unattended in open grounds within easy reach of children and near irrigated fields where they could contaminate the soil and crops. Some waste processing has been outsourced to local scrap dealers who complain of rashes, blisters and other side-effects from exposure to unlabeled or mislabeled materials.

 

By Oliver August

The Times
June 14, 2010

 

 

American troops going home from Iraq after seven painful years are leaving behind a legacy that is literally toxic.

An investigation by The Times in five Iraqi provinces has found that hazardous material from US bases is being dumped locally rather than sent back to America, in clear breach of Pentagon rules.

North and west of Baghdad, engine oil is leaking from 55-gallon drums into dusty ground, open acid canisters sit within easy reach of children, and discarded batteries lie close to irrigated farmland. A 2009 Pentagon document shown to The Times by a private contractor working with US soldiers mentions "an estimated 11 million pounds [5,000 tonnes] of hazardous waste" produced by American troops.

But even this figure appears to be only a partial estimate. BrigadierGeneral Kendall Cox, who is responsible for engineering and infrastructure in Iraq, told The Times yesterday that he was in the process of disposing of 14,500 tonnes of oil and soil contaminated with oil. "This has accumulated over seven years," he said.

Iraqis who have come into contact with some of the material suffer from rashes and blistering on their hands and feet. They also complain of gagging and coughing. Rats near sites where waste was dumped have died and lie next to soiled containers.

Abu Saif, a Fallujah scrap dealer who handles US military surplus, lifted up his trouser legs and raised his hands to show blistered skin. "I got this when I worked on what was supposed to be American scrap metal," he said. "I checked with a doctor and he said these are the effects of dangerous chemicals."

Private recycling companies located within American bases have allegedly mixed hazardous material with ordinary scrap and passed it on to local dealers. "By the time we see this stuff it is too late," said Abu Saif.

Several workers at his and other yards have been injured while handling supposed scrap metal. "When they poured out what's in these jerry cans they started coughing," another yard owner said. "Some got rashes and many quit work. So when I get this kind of material now I bury it somewhere far away."

Some of the dumped materials have labels identifying them as US military property or come with paperwork from the Department of Defence. The Times discovered a 2008 e-mail from Allied Chemical of Morristown, New Jersey, to Pentagon officials warning of hazardous effects.

A printout was attached to a discarded canister of sulphuric acid, a highly corrosive liquid used in wastewater treatment. It said of the substance: "Causes severe burns to skin and lungs ... Get immediate medical attention ... Use gas mask."

As the majority of US troops depart from Iraq this year, hundreds of bases are being closed and all hazardous material is supposed to be either returned to the US by ship via the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr or recycled in specially built facilities in northern and western Iraq.

Brigadier-General Stephen Lanza, the US military spokesman in Baghdad, said: "We take this issue very seriously and want to solve the problem. There is a variety of ways in which this [dumping] could have happened. We are now putting a system into place. There is a lot of catching up to do."

The spokesman will hold a press conference today to explain how the military intends to clean up after itself. He said: "There may have been things that were collected improperly. We will send teams through our dumps to see if there is anything in the wrong place."

But for now the military is mostly guessing. Brigadier-General Gus Purna, director of the military arm responsible for logistics in Iraq, said: "Maybe a motor pool was closed and, rather than going to the turn-in site, the oil went to the dump."

Having been shown photographs taken by The Times at dump sites, the general said: "Seeing these pictures is very helpful. We want to make sure we get it right."

Most of the dump sites are close to the main roads from Baghdad to Fallujah and Mosul, where America fought hardest and had the greatest concentration of bases over the past seven years. In numerous places the ground is littered with the detritus of military life. Oil filters from heavy vehicles lie next to aerosol cans and other compressed-gas cylinders. Drums of aviation fuel mingle with jerry cans containing unknown liquids.

Most canisters no longer hold their original contents or are only partly filled. Yet, according to US military rules shown by a contractor to The Times, even "empty containers that previously held hazardous waste" may not be dumped.

The labels on the range of canisters say "hazardous waste - federal laws prohibit improper disposal"; "corrosive", "keep out of reach of children"; "no smoking within 50ft"; "caution - hazardous waste"; "flammable liquid".

Red danger signs are covered with black spray paint. One barrel features a hand-written notice saying: "Hazardous waste 1/10/09." Another has a Department of Defence label with a "hazard ID" number. Parts of weapons can also be found, including canisters for explosive propellants for American 155mm guns, confiscated AK-47 rifles, rusty landmines and the shells of shoulder-fired missiles.

Nirmeen Othman, the Iraqi Environment Minister, told The Times that she was starting an official investigation into the disposal of hazardous American material. "I will send a team of experts immediately to check on this," she said.

Responsibility for the removal of US military waste lies with the Defence Reutilisation and Marketing Office, which subcontracts some of the work to local companies. It has a legal responsibility for American waste even after it has been passed on to private contractors.

Qahtan Khalaf, the Tikrit-based owner of al-Shefar Group, which has been disposing of US military waste since 2003, said: "The Americans properly separate the hazardous material from the plastic and scrap metal, and then pass it on to Kuwaiti and Lebanese companies. Some of the companies then mix it back together and pass it on to Iraqi companies. That's how they get rid of things."

 

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