Recent fighting in Gaza and Libya has seen the targeting of a fuel burning power station and oil depot, resulting in large fires that have released toxic plumes into the atmosphere. These scenarios are unfortunately not new, with power stations and oil infrastructure commonly targeted during conflicts. What can peacetime responses to similar events teach us about the current limits of environmental protection during conflict? Andy Garrity investigates.
On the 29th of July 2014, Israeli Defence Force (IDF) tanks shelled the Nusairat power station in Gaza. The plant provided approximately a third of Gaza’s power needs during peace time. The power station uses diesel fuel to generate power and a reported 3 million litres of diesel were held in its storage tanks prior to the attack. Large black plumes of smoke could be seen billowing into the atmosphere as fire-fighting crews tried to tackle the flames. Loss of power in Gaza has also affected pumps that supply drinking water and sewage processing systems, sparking fears of further widespread indirect pollution from the attack.
Days earlier, fighting between armed groups outside Libya’s capital Tripoli caused a huge fire at the city’s main oil depot, which contained both petrol and diesel fuel. Due to the intensity of the fighting, emergency response crews were unable to gain control of the blaze and the fire spread to 5 of the sites vast storage tanks.
Oil fires on this scale release huge plumes of dense black smoke into the atmosphere, whose contents are eventually deposited on to the land, crops and drinking water supplies as well as in coastal and marine environments.
Plume from the Brega Oil Company’s depot near Tripoli airport, the authorities urged the evacuation of residents within a 3-5km radius.
The toxic plumes resulting from large-scale oil and fuel fires contain a mixture of soot, aerosols and particulate matter made up of hydrocarbon combustion products and heavy metal impurities such as arsenic and nickel. These combustion products can contain benzene (carcinogenic to humans), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, especially benzo[a]pyrene which is a probable human carcinogen) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Petrol and diesel fuel are also considered to be possible carcinogens in humans.
Past oil and fuel fires resulting from conflict
The possible health impacts caused by exposure to these dense black plumes are well known. In Kuwait 1991, retreating Iraqi forces set fire to thousands of oil wells, contaminating the air, land and coast. US troops stationed in the area returned home with a variety of health complaints linked to their exposure to the plumes.
In Lebanon 2006, the IDF targeted the Jiyeh power station, releasing 10-15,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil into the sea and contaminating 150km of coastline, as well as causing serious air pollution due to the thick plumes of smoke.
Parallels with peacetime oil fires
In 2005, the largest fire in peacetime Europe occurred after a malfunction at the Buncefield oil depot in Hertfordshire, UK. The fault resulted in a huge blast and diesel oil in the tanks ignited releasing a plume of black smoke over a highly populated area.
The are key differences between Buncefield and the recent fires in Gaza and Tripoli, the most fundamental being that the availability of civil resources meant that the fires could be tackled and environmental and public health monitoring could take place. At Buncefied, the fire was brought under control after five days. In Tripoli, fire crews had to retreat from the area due to ongoing fighting in the vicinity of the depot. As a result the fire spread to a further 4 tanks forcing the local government to issue an evacuation order and an appeal for fighting to cease so a further humanitarian and environmental situation can be avoided. In Gaza the emergency services are already overstretched due to the Israeli bombing campaign, with attacks continuing close to the stricken power plant.
During the Buncefield depot fire, the health authorities and local hospitals dealt with the influx of residents affected to the plume. Unlike hospitals in Gaza, local accident and emergency departments were not overstretched with casualties of bombing, and could easily handle the numbers of concerned residents. They also produced a follow up health questionnaire to ensure there were no ongoing health complaints that might have arisen from exposure to the smoke cloud.
After the accident, a number of environmental assessments were undertaken by the UK Environment Agency under the UK’s Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations (these are the enforcing regulations within the UK of the Seveso II Directive devised in Brussels following the Seveso disaster). These sought to quantify the extent of the damage caused by leaking and burning fuel, gauge the effectiveness of clean-up operations so as to to minimise damage to water systems and agricultural land, and limit nearby residents’ exposure to pollutants. In addition to direct pollution from the fire, unacceptable levels of the persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic fluorosurfactant perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) were also subsequently found in groundwater contaminated by the foam used to fight the fires.
The TRWP has raised repeated concerns over the lack of comprehensive environmental and health assessments following pollution incidents during and after conflict. In Gaza and Tripoli, the fighting was ongoing at the time of writing and Gaza in particular faces a number of humanitarian and environmental problems caused by the current conflict, such as the management of contaminated rubble. The environmental impact of the conflict in Libya is unclear as the security situation and a lack of donor interest have meant that UNEP has been unable to undertake a detailed environmental assessment in the country.
Environmental damage – remediation, obligations and liabilities
In the case of the Buncefield fire, the five operating companies were eventually held responsible for endangering the lives and health of workers and residents and for the environmental pollution the accident caused. They were subsequently ordered to cover the costs of remediation programmes under the polluter pays principle.
At present, few opportunities exist for resolving similar pollution incidents during or after conflict, even when they pose a direct threat to civilian health and livelihoods. Legal provisions for ensuring that the environment is protected during hostilities are notoriously weak, there is no clear system for international assistance and donor mechanisms for funding remediation are conspicuously absent.
The oil infrastructure fires in Gaza and Libya highlight once again that greater controls are needed on the targeting of industrial infrastructure; legal guidelines governing the ‘release of dangerous forces’ should be expanded beyond nuclear sites, dams and dykes to cover a wider range of facilities. Pollution from the wilful or inadvertent destruction of such sites can be considerable, with the impact on environmental and civilian health, well-being and livelihoods being felt well beyond the cessation of hostilities.
Greater scrutiny of targeting decisions could help minimise the generation of TRW but when incidents do occur, legal and institutional responses to equivalent peacetime incidents should be analysed to help guide new standards for the protection of the environment and its inhabitants from conflict pollution.