- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

Special correspondent John Zarocostas in Geneva recently interviewed Pekka Haavisto, 46, a former Finnish environment minister who now chairs the U.N. Environment Program’s post-conflict environmental-assessments task force on Iraq.

Question: Your agency recently announced a new project with the Iraqi government to help clean up some contaminated sites in Iraq from recent wars and conflicts. What are the priorities?

Answer: This has now been approved by the Iraq Trust Fund in Amman [Jordan], which is the main channel for the donor community to address the urgent problems in Iraq, and we are very happy that the environment is looked upon as a priority issue.

Our experience is that if urgent environmental issues which affect health are not addressed immediately in a post-conflict situation, then [people are at risk from pollutants].

And there is the psychological factor. People are returning to targeted facilities and sites and ask, “Are there any health consequences for me?”

Q: UNEP and the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment picked five out of 300 contaminated sites. Why were these chosen?

A: First, the Al-Mishraq Sulphur State Company, located quite far north, has serious sulphur-mining problems. But also during the summer of 2003, a very severe burning of sulphur — I think caused by looters; we do not know the real reason — but a huge area around the company was polluted. Maybe up to 30 kilometers [18 miles] from the company and in a direction where there are towns and people living.

Also, the Midland (Al-Doura) refinery, about six miles north of Baghdad, was heavily looted immediately after the war, and fires were set. According to the Iraqi Ministry of Environment, about 5,000 tons of various hazardous chemicals leaked. What we would like to do there is proper field investigations and measurements.

Then there is the Al-Suwaira Seed Store, where seeds had been coated with mercury, which is used to protect the seed from bugs. But again, there has been looting, and something like 50 tons of this contaminated seed has been stolen.

Q: Is there a health risk if people consume these seeds?

A: Exactly: The seeds have not been used for planting, but for making bread. Mercury is one of those things that, if it gets into your body, you can have serious health effects like cancer or brain damage.

Also on our list is the oil pipeline and areas where it was attacked. This is still an acute problem, because insurgents are still setting off explosions. There are more and more sites where not only sand or desert is contaminated, but also water sources, groundwater, even drinking water is at risk.

And finally, another area of concern to Iraqi authorities are scrap yards and dumps of metal from war-damaged vehicles; tanks and other metal have been collected. Our experience, and also the information the Iraqis have, is that there are several hazardous chemicals — asbestos, engine oils and the like, which can leak into the nearby soils from these scrap yards.

And of course, depleted uranium (DU) also is a concern, because some of these vehicles, especially tanks, may have been targeted with DU weapons. Our experience from the Balkans is you have to clean the depleted uranium from the tanks before you recycle the metal. This is a high priority.

Q: The United Nations does not have an international presence in Iraq because of the security situation. So how will UNEP and Iraq coordinate?

A: In the past, under the Saddam regime, environmental issues were taken care of by the Ministry of Health, and there apparently was a very weak environmental administration. Now, since autumn 2003, [the interim government] established a Ministry of Environment, and Environment Minister Mishkat Moumin has a staff of a thousand to 1,200 people, including the regional environmental centers she inherited.

After meeting with her and her staff, we believe they are competent people to work with on environmental issues. Many have water-engineering backgrounds and a competent understanding of environmental problems.

We have agreed with them to create training centers in Amman, and to use the Spiez Laboratory in Switzerland, which has high-level expertise with chemical pollutants, to train the staff on how to protect themselves and to identify the worst polluted sites and collect and analyze samples.

We have asked them to share the samples with us … [because] at present, we do not have access to Iraq, or to these sites.

Q: Given your experience in other conflict areas, what resources are required to clean up the contaminated sites?

A: Well, if you are speaking of these seriously polluted- or contaminated-soil areas, the timeline might involve three to five years. You start with a proper assessment of the chemicals, and then you have to build storage for the [waste] material you are digging out. It’s quite a long process.

After the 1999 Kosovo war, we finished some of our cleanup projects in four years.

Q: Your report says the British Defense Ministry provided UNEP with details of target areas where 1.9 tons of depleted-uranium munitions were fired in the recent Iraq war. Do you hope to receive similar information from the other coalition forces?

A: Of course, we hope to receive that. The kinds of weapons used in Iraq is an issue. There’s confirmation that during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, some chemical weapons were used in border areas and in the north [of Iraq]. This is already in our report. One of the concerns is that there may be some remnants of this.

Then if you speak of the Gulf War of 1991, there are figures indicating that up to 280 tons of DU munitions were used. If you compare that with Kosovo, where 9 tons of DU was used, and with Bosnia where 3 tons was fired, the amount used in Iraq is quite big.

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