ISIS Oil Fires Trigger Environmental Catastrophe in Iraq
December 4, 2016
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & CNN & Daily News & Andrea DiCenzo / Al Jazeera
In the months leading up to the telegraphed Iraqi invasion of the major ISIS city of Mosul, ISIS had ample time to set up myriad defenses. Among these was setting fire to oil wells, aiming to provide a cloud of smoke that would hinder US airstrikes. 19 wells were set on fire and, after 100 days, only three have been sealed. Extinguishing the rest could take months and cost millions. Meanwhile, the smoke is complicating the air war, and also sickening people on the ground.
Al-Qayyara, Iraq: Menacing black smoke hangs over the town of al-Qayyara
Iraq Struggles With ISIS Oil Fires
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(December 2, 2016) -- In the months leading up to the telegraphed Iraqi invasion of the major ISIS city of Mosul, ISIS had ample time to set up myriad defenses. Among these was setting fire to oil wells, aiming to provide a cloud of smoke that would hinder US airstrikes.
The fires did that and then some, and Iraq deployed a number of engineers and firefighters to the area back in August to try to get a handle on all these fires. There isn't much progress to be had on this front, with the fires largely still raging.
19 wells have been set on fire, and three of them have been sealed 100 days later. Getting the rest is expected to take several months, and cost millions in lost revenue. Meanwhile, the smoke is complicating the air war, and also sickening people on the ground.
Getting a handle on the oil fires is a very complicated process, and while Iraqi officials tried to predict a quick and simple solution, as always, only to see the effort continue to want for real progress months later.
Iraqis Battle ISIS-Ignited Blazing Oil Wells
CNN & Daily News -- Ceylon
Families live beneath the towering columns of smoke and it is unclear how this toxic legacy
(December 2, 2016) – Children with blackened hands and soot-stained faces play beneath the toxic plumes. The early afternoon sun is so eclipsed by the haze that day seems like endless twilight. The dark filth coating the landscape and choking residents' lungs comes from oil wells sabotaged and set alight by ISIS in August.
Engineers and firefighters have been battling the flames for 100 days now.
When CNN first visited al-Qayyara back in early October, they had tackled six fires with nine to go. But the real extent of the damage had yet to be determined. Now there are 19 burning wells, three of which have been sealed. Turning them all off is expected to take months and cost millions of dollars in lost oil revenue.
Families live beneath the towering columns of smoke and it is unclear how this toxic legacy left by ISIS will affect their health.
It's suspected the terror group damaged the oil field to create a smoke screen as Iraqi forces battled to push them out of al-Qayyara, about 35 miles south of Mosul. It is a devastating example of the group's scorched earth policy.
"ISIS, these terrorists, did this," Itkhlaf Mohammed, a lead engineer working to cap the wells says. "They did it to provide themselves with cover from airplanes and at the same time to ruin and take revenge on the area."
A Colossal Challenge
Firefighters, engineers, and oil workers must battle unimaginable conditions to contain these fires and extinguish the blazing oil wells. The heat is so high that it has melted much of the ground close to the wells. The air is thick and foul and tastes terrible. The smoke makes your eyes water.
Dozens of men work long days at these sites but few wear gas masks. Some wrap their faces with scarves. The process of containing the fires and capping the wells can take anywhere between two days and two months depending on the extent of the damage caused by ISIS militants.
"This is a very complicated process. You can't just put out the fire with water," Mohammed says. "You have to actually reach the head of the well and control it. And this is very difficult and also dangerous."
First, earth-moving equipment is used to contain the fire and channel the oil flow away from people's homes. Then workers dig down through the flames, while trying to keep the oil and their equipment cool as they haul out mounds of smoking sludge and earth.
Curbing the Flames in Spite of ISIS
Only when they find the head of the well can they determine the extent of the damage and what must be done to close it. Often experts must be lowered into the well to inspect and repair breaks while the fire still burns above ground.
Wells that have only been set alight can be turned off via a functioning valve. But if the well was blown up with explosives -- which is the case for most -- then fixing the break is far more challenging.
Plugging the leak with cement is the option of last resort because it means the well can't be used in the future.
And as oil field guards fight to stifle the flames, ISIS have continued to deliberately disrupt their work. Militants were still fighting Iraqi troops nearby when the repairs began and workers say they sometimes came under mortar fire. The group also left mines around the wells which have yet to be cleared.
"Right now we have the problem of the IEDs that were planted by ISIS," Mohammed explains. "We have been working with a de-mining unit of the federal police to clear the area."
So far 120 IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, have been located around the burning wells. Officials say they expect to find dozens more. Despite the dangers, the small teams of men working to put out the poisonous fires remain resolute.
"We have to overcome all these difficulties and turn off the wells," Abdelqadr Soltan, one of the workers, says. "This is our job and this our duty."
All while the 15,000 residents of al-Qayyara continue to live in an environment they know is damaging their health, potentially for years to come.
"Every day the hospitals are admitting tens of patients complaining of breathing problems," Salah al-Joubri, mayor of al-Qayyara says. "Everything is black. People's clothes are black. Their homes are black. Even the livestock is black. People wash their clothes and 30 minutes later they are black again."
ISIL's Blazing Trail of Sestruction in Qayyara
Amid their retreat from the Iraqi town,
ISIL fighters lit oil wells ablaze,
blanketing the area in suffocating smoke
Andrea DiCenzo / Al Jazeera
QAYYARA, Iraq (November 1, 2016) -- The oil-rich town of Qayyara, about 60km south of Mosul, was retaken in August from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), whose fighters controlled the town for more than two years.
Anticipating their defeat, fighters with ISIL (also known as ISIS) first torched oil wells along the edges of the town in early July. The oil plumes billowing up from the ground aimed to impede US-led coalition air strikes, and to leave a ruined prize behind.
An acrid stench of sulphur and oil now permeates the city, and soot has stained everything black. Still, life is returning to the streets. Civilians have come back from camps and informal settlements, as fruit sellers ply their trade with paper masks over their mouths to help protect their lungs. Iraqi fire crews have so far been unable to fully extinguish the massive fires.
In the meantime, the civilian population of Qayyara has been left to choke on the fumes, spread at the mercy of the wind, which can leave the skies clear on one day, and blot out the sun the next.
Sulphur Cloud from Torched Plant Kills Two Iraqis
Fighting rages as nearly 1,000
treated for breathing problems following
sulphur plant fire south of key Iraqi city
(October 22, 2016) -- At least two Iraqi civilians have died and nearly a 1,000 are being treated for breathing problems from toxic fumes released from a burning sulphur plant near Mosul, as fighting around the key city continued for a sixth day.
ISIL fighters are accused of setting the sulphur plant ablaze on Thursday during fighting around al-Mishraq, which is south of Mosul, according to US officials and local residents.
Hundreds of people were admitted to the nearby Qayyara central hospital with respiratory problems since Friday, hospital director Abdul Salam Jabbouri told Reuters news agency. No deaths had been reported at the hospital.
The blaze released toxic fumes seen and felt by residents in the area and, early on Saturday, by military forces and reporters around Qayyara.
"We have had every type of person come in with breathing problems and burning eyes -- children, adults, policemen, soldiers," said Jabbouri. "Daesh [ISIL] set the sulphur on fire so nobody can come near them."
An estimated 30,000 fighters, including the Iraqi army, Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni tribal fighters and the Popular Mobilisation Forces -- Shia militias that now have official status from Baghdad -- are taking part in the Mosul campaign, which is backed by US-led coalition air strikes. Iraqi commanders have told Al Jazeera an estimated 6,000 ISIL fighters are inside Iraq's second-largest city.
A cloud of white smoke blanketed the region to the north, where the sulphur factory is located, mingling with black fumes from oil wells that were torched as well. US officials said coalition forces at the nearby Qayyara airfield -- the main hub to support Iraqi-led operations to retake Mosul -- are wearing protective masks.
"The winds have actually shifted south, so as a precautionary measure the troops at Qayyara West have donned their personal protective equipment -- continuing their operations at this point in time," an official said on Saturday. Iraqi state TV said the fire was put out Saturday.
Al Jazeera's Imran Khan, reporting from Erbil, said there was confusion over who was responsible for the blaze at the plant. "Nobody really knows what is going on, whether it was a coalition air strike, Iraqi armour, or ISIL suicide bombing," he said.
"Because of the constant change in wind directron, the entire area is becoming very dangerous. A lot of soldiers are wearing gas masks and the government is warning residents. While the fire is under control, there is smoke in the air and that is likely to cause health problems."
Operation Inherent Resolve -- the official name of the US-led anti-ISIL coalition -- said it had provided more than 24,000 protective chemical masks to Iraqi security forces and the allied Kurdish Peshmerga fighters during training for the Mosul offensive.
"Daesh [Arabic acronym for ISIL] blew up the sulphur plant two days ago and that has led to the deaths of two people among the civilians in nearby villages," Iraqi General Qusay Hamid Kadhem told AFP news agency.
Kadhem admitted the toxic fumes were having an impact on operations: "Of course, this is affecting our planned progress."
In an examination room at Qayyara hospital, a baby, suffering from inhalation of sulphur fumes, screamed and coughed on Saturday as his father held an oxygen mask over his face, according to Reuters.
Most patients have been given oxygen and told to stay away from areas with high sulphur concentration, according to medical aide Saddam Ahmad, who was wearing a surgical mask to protect him from the fumes. "We've had so many patients since yesterday that we're almost out of oxygen," Ahmad said.
Ali Ahmad Khalaf, 38, who lives in a nearby village, said he had moved his family to Qayyara to escape the fumes. "The sulphur is very dangerous," said Khalaf, wearing a surgical mask and a traditional dishdasha robe. "Daesh just wants to kill us."
Standing nearby, Bassam Qazi overheard Khalaf and said: "I saw an old man who had choked and died from the smoke."
Hours after the capture of the key town of Bartella, some 15km east of Mosul's outskirts, the Iraqi army launched on Saturday a new offensive to retake the southeast district of Hamdaniya, according to Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr, who is reporting from Gweir, near the frontline.
Fighting was ongoing late in the day.
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