After extremists set off bombs on Iraq’s most dangerous oil field, the resulting fire burned for a month. The result: toxic smoke, two deaths, accusations, environmental disaster and lots of dirty laundry.
For a month recently, the skies above Qayara were black with smoke. A pillar of grey clouds could be seen from 40 kilometres away.
The cause: an oil well fire. For people living near here, next to one of the most dangerous oil fields in Iraq because of its proximity to the conflicted city of Mosul, this is not a new experience. But the length of time it took to put the fire out and weeks of a potentially poisonous smoke were. The smoke contained dangerous levels of hydrogen sulphide, which is heavier than air, very poisonous, and flammable.
On April 5, three of Qayara’s 90–plus oil wells were targeted by unidentified extremists, who set off explosives causing a major fire at the wells. Two of the oil well fires were extinguished by civil defence teams but a third – at Field 74 - kept burning. A team that specialised in these kinds of fires was then brought up from Baghdad but they too seem to have had difficulty extinguishing the fire.
The oil field is being run by Angolan oil company, Sonangol.
Visiting the area at the time, one immediately noticed a dirt wall, around three metres high, hiding the site of the fire. There are people relatively near the site and most of them look justifiably worried. Some were members of the special team sent by Iraq’s Ministry of Oil. And they say that the fire shouldn’t be extinguished until all the toxic gases coming out of the well have been burned up.
“We could extinguish this fire in a few hours,” one of them told NIQASH. “But the more we keep it burning, the more we will protect people against the toxic gases.”
Local oil industry specialist, Adib Othman, who used to work for the Iraqi national petrol company, North Oil, explained that the fire had started out in the excavation under Field 74 and damaged equipment under the surface. This increased oil flow and fed the fire, leading to its continued burning and the resulting toxic gases.
Othman said that this was why it had taken so long to put out the fire. He also admitted that the month-long fire would have had an impact on local peoples’ health and that he had heard of two elderly women who had died because of smoke inhalation.
Specialists estimate the well fire cost about half a million dollars a day, while it was burning.
Despite this explanation, some locals still thought there was something suspicious going on. The head of the Qayara neighbourhood council, Mahmoud al-Tabour, lives two streets away from the place of the fire. In an interview with NIQASH, Mahmoud said that the security forces prevented him from coming near the well and this made him suspicious that the fire had been mishandled.
There had also been all kinds of rumours about how the fire had started and whether security guards had adequately protected the oil fields from extremists. One story had it that the fires had been started by mortars fired from a distance. Another said fires had been started by explosives planted near the oil well sites, by the roadside. And there have been accusations and recriminations from all sides, with security forces saying locals colluded with the bombers and locals saying that security forces did.
However it started, there’s no doubt about the effect the fire had. “At the beginning, I didn\'t care that much about the fire and the smoke. I actually got used to the smell,” says one local named Hammoud, who lives in the Shuhada neighbourhood in Qayara. “But then I saw a report on the dangers of oil well fire and the toxic gas on TV.” As a result Hammoud has been shuttling his family of eight from one relative’s house to another for a month. He says he couldn’t completely leave the area because his children go to school nearby but that anything was better than his own home, which was only several hundred meters from the oil fields.
Another local, Kawla Shihab, told NIQASH she was happy the fire had been extinguished because she could now hang up her laundry again. She lives with her orphaned grandchildren and, as she says, “I can’t hang the laundry inside because the house is too small and it won’t dry. And I couldn’t hang the laundry outside because it was getting dirty and smoky. So I’m happy,” she concludes.