Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs written question – answered on 14th June 2005.

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Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the state of the environment in Iraq, with particular reference to (a) oil pollution, (b) looted nuclear compounds and (c) chemical pollution.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Minister of State (the Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

We welcome the appointment, in May 2005, of Narmin Othman as the new Minister of the Environment for Iraq. The Ministry was created under the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003. Iraq faces many environmental challenges following the neglect and abuse inflicted by Saddam Hussein's regime. Getting an up to date Environmental Law on the statute books is an environmental priority.

The UK Government are working closely with the Government of Iraq to develop the principles of good governance in the oil sector. In January and February this year the Tigris was polluted by oil slicks emanating from sabotaged pipelines. Booms were successfully deployed to prevent contamination of drinking water plants along the river. Oil pollution is also evident in the marshland and desert areas around Basra, particularly where saboteurs breached pipelines.

We are aware of reports of people in the area of the Al Tuwaitha nuclear facility having looted drums and containers, emptied low-enriched uranium from them, and taken the containers off to use for water storage. Separate reports of children playing with the uranium powder on the site have also been made, but we have seen no confirmation of these. The site has now been secured, and the radio-active material there returned to safe storage. We are not aware of any further looting taking place, and much of the remaining material was subsequently removed from Iraq by US experts, with the consent of the Iraqi Interim Government and keeping the IAEA informed. Initial indications are that there was little or no immediate radiation sickness evident in the population, but there might well be longer term health risks to people who were exposed to radiation. An inter-agency task force was set up in Baghdad in October 2004 to take forward action on recovering radio-active material that has been taken from the site, and monitor the long-term health of people at risk of exposure to radiation.

We have no information on chemical pollution in Iraq. However, disposal of chemical and hazardous waste is a significant problem. The US embassy estimates that there may be 5,000 chemical waste sites across Iraq which fail basic international environmental standards.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has a $5 million programme in Iraq aimed at capacity building and in particular to train staff to assess the extent of environmental hazards. The Department for International Development has contributed £717,000 towards UNEP's work on post-conflict environmental assessment and to support the Environment Ministry.

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