How microbes may help clean up oil spills in Iraq

Updated: Oct 30, 2019

The soil bacteria is fed with nutrients from manure and bulking agents like wood chips and water, to thrive in and then break down petroleum

The United Nations has rolled out a project to use naturally occuring soil bacteria to decontaminate land poisoned by oil spills in war-torn Iraq. The aim is to cultivate microbes that can naturally break down petroleum spills created due to conflicts. 

The soil bacteria is fed nutrients from manure and bulking agents such as wood chips and water to thrive and then devour oil spills.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has partnered the Iraqi government for the project, which includes state-owned North Oil Co and the country's Ministry of Health and Environment.

“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,’’ UNEP expert Mike Cowing said.

Bioremediation can't be a panacea for all spills though. Cleaning up must consider factors such as soil type, chemical properties of the crude oil, etc, he said.

In 2016, Islamic State fighters burned down 19 oil wells near Qayyarah, a small town of around 25,000 people, some 60 km south of Mosul.

For months, the oil wells spewed tens of thousands of barrels of oil; crude oil flowed through Qayyarah’s streets and into dry riverbed or wadis; and for weeks thick clouds of smoke emanated making it difficult for people to distinguish day from night.

While oil waste was collected into a dozen large pits, extreme rainfall and flash floods in 2018 winter washed out oil from the holding pits into the Tigris river, known as Iraq’s lifeline.

North Oil Co collected an estimated 20,000 tonnes of remaining oil waste, but the cleaning efforts lagged. Residents still face pools of thick oil on their doorsteps, threatening their health.

“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,” said Waleed Hussein, who leads the environment ministry’s oil pollution control team.

To assist in remediation of oil spills, the UNEP in collaboration with the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq delivered a four-day workshop last month at North Oil Co headquarters.


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