Change agents: Sand, spills and body armour

11th January 2013

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  • Pollution & Waste Management ,
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Environmental engineer and IEMA Affilliate Lloyd Clark describes his year working in the Iraqi oilfields

In autumn 2010 my then employer, WorleyParsons Engineering, accepted a contract to work on an oilfield in Iraq developing an environment management system (EMS) and monitoring impacts at the site. It was the most dangerous, intriguing and memorable project I have ever worked on.

I had worked in the Middle East as an environmental engineer for three years and was based in Dubai when the opportunity to work in Iraq arose. As somewhat of an adrenaline junkie this type of “extreme engineering” seemed just the ticket. When I first stepped on to the tarmac at Basra airport and an ancient, rusty, bullet-ridden bus took me to a shack called immigration I knew then that I was in for an adventure.

Despite common perceptions, Iraq is not one big desert, but has a number of large water bodies, including the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, as well as a multitude of environmental havens, including some of the world’s largest marshlands. These are home to protected species, such as the Basra reed warbler, which have been threatened by upstream channelling and damming as well as by local projects. Only now is the environment being given a chance to fight back.

The oilfield we worked on covers 500km2 and contains marshlands, rivers, farmland and several villages. One of my main tasks was to document the condition of the site and establish an EMS, with the intention of controlling and reducing the environmental impacts of the oilfield. It was a challenge from the start, in particular having to work in a war-torn environment. Trying to raise environmental awareness in a region where preserving the environment was very much on the backburner, was a major concern, as was security.

Detailed security plans were made for those of us working in the field. Generally, there was a single field engineer, either myself or another environmental specialist, who would oversee activities. The field engineer was guarded by no fewer than six armed security personnel, including a medic. Armour-plated Toyota Land Cruisers with three-inch thick bulletproof windows provided transport and we wore 16kg body armour and a kevlar helmet at all times – unless an area was deemed to be safe, which wasn’t often.

While on the move there is a continuous threat from attack – $50,000 was the going rate for a kidnapped westerner – as well as from improvised explosive devices and unexploded artillery. To say we were constantly on our guard is a massive understatement; if you valued your life or limbs, you took every precaution.

In such conditions it is safest to live on a military base. Our accommodation consisted of cosy, refurbished freight containers with a concrete wall protecting us from rockets. To begin with, the rocket attacks frayed our nerves – I became ready to hit the ground whenever I heard a car alarm go off – but you get used to them and, towards the end of my stay, I barely noticed them.

Security and weather issues aside, there was a job to be done in identifying existing environmental impacts and working to reduce them. Iraq is still suffering from decades of neglect and the oil production processes are not what you would expect on a modern oilfield. There are wells to extract the oil and pipes to distribute it, but little else. Building a control centre was a completely new concept, for example. The bare essentials ensure the flow of oil continues but, while this is changing with the influx of international petroleum companies, the change is slow.

One of our biggest concerns was the dangerous gases released during oil extraction. Monitors were worn by our team and breathing apparatus was available to minimise inhalation, but teaching the locals to respect these gases was not easy. I was often told that they did not need monitors because they were “immune” to the effects of the gases. Past fatalities had almost always been logged as employee stupidity.

For a long time the environment has taken a backseat in Iraq. Previously, no measures were taken to protect the environment, and Iraqi staff still struggle to contemplate incorporating environmental measures into their antiquated production system.

The lack of equipment and processes results in problems not seen in western oilfields occurring daily, including releases of crude oil and extracted fluid, liquids and gases. On top of this, the country has hardly any waste-management facilities or infrastructure, and is particularly ill-equipped to deal with hazardous waste.

After a year our contract came to an end and a team of local graduates was employed to continue our work protecting the environment.

The project was an intense experience and taught me to deal with the most extreme working scenarios, while ensuring the job continued. I also gained an appreciation for a society suppressed for a generation, but now wanting to change.

When I look back at my time in Iraq, I am proud of what I did, but my thoughts dwell on the security team that put their lives on the line to protect me 12 hours a day, every day.

Lloyd Clark, IEMA Affiliate, environment and sustainability manager, Addax Bioenergy

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