Iraq: Islamic State Oil Fires Causing Illness, Environmental Hazard

REUTERS/Girish Gupta
REUTERS/Girish Gupta

Huge oil fires lit by the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) across northern Iraq as it fled U.S.-backed Iraqi forces last month are still raging, making locals ill and causing an environmental hazard.

“The smoke hurts our children, hurts us and, as we get older, it’s only going to cause us more problems,” 20-year-old Sarhan Misin told Reuters, noting that he has begun suffering from coughing fits and shortness of breath.

“This ongoing ecocide is a recipe for a prolonged disaster,” noted Erik Solheim, head of the United Nations’ environment program, in October.

Reuters reported:

Locals cough and wheeze under vast clouds of smoke, and NASA images show oil threatening to encroach on the Tigris River, a major water source…A toxic cloud has hung for months over the town of Qayyara, just 60 km (40 miles) from Mosul where Iraqi forces are battling to defeat the militant Sunni group…Oil fires release deadly substances into the air, soil and water sources, as seen when retreating

Satellite images published in November revealed that an area of more than 155 square miles had been covered for an excess of 21 days.

Pictures unveiled this month show oil too close for comfort to a tributary of the Tigris. However, less smoke has been detected as fires have been extinguished.

Of nearly twenty oil fires lit by ISIS a few miles away from Qayyara, about half are still burning, spewing flames and causing thick smoke clouds to swirl around.

“We’re dealing with a natural force … as if preparing Judgement Day and what hell could be like,” proclaimed Ayyad Al-Jiburi, the engineer leading a project of an estimated 100 firefighters and engineers working to put out the fire.

It remains uncertain when they will be done.

Various environmental groups, along with the UN, are pushing for the fires to be extinguished.

The oil-producing town of Qayyara, which is home to an estimated 15,000 people, has also suffered from a chlorine gas leak in October that originated at a water plant.

“A further toxic cloud rolled across the land as sulphur dioxide stockpiled nearby caught fire,” reported Reuters.

The Associated Press (AP) warned in September that the oil fires may jeopardize the ongoing U.S.-backed Iraqi government offensive to push ISIS out of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and group’s last major stronghold in the country.

“Black smoke continues to billow into the air from the Qayyara oil field, damaged by IS militants last month as they fled the town, creating health risks for civilians and troops amassing there,” reported AP. “The fires are also clogging up the skies in the area, where critically important airstrikes and aerial reconnaissance missions are taking place almost daily.”

Soon after the Mosul offensive began in mid-October, ISIS set ablaze a chemical plant and sulphur plant near Qayyara. The toxic fumes released by tons of burning waste killed at least two people and injured hundreds more.