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Air Pollution: The Dirty Secret Behind BP’s Huge Profits

Journalist Owen Pennell in Rumalia, southern Iraq
People like Ali Hussein Julud live far away from where leaders from all over the world are sitting at the COP27 conference and making environmental promises.

Hussein is a leukemia victim who lives in an Iraqi oil field, which is also managed by British Petroleum.

When they learned that BP was not reporting information about the flaring taking place at the oil field, Hosseini enlisted the help of uncovering the truth about the polluted air in which to breathe. For this, the local population is compelled.

I first saw videos posted on Twitter in 2019 showing black smoke billowing over people’s homes in Iraq’s oil fields.

Then I came to know that this is a common thing called flaring. In flaring, those poisonous gases are burnt in the open sky and are released during the extraction of oil.
From the data collected from the satellite, we learned that the Rumaila region of Basra in southern Iraq is the most affected area in the world by flaring.
Gas flaring not only emits greenhouse gases that contaminate the environment, but it also releases benzene, which increases the risk of cancer and childhood leukemia.
Dozens of people living in five different communities near the Rumela oil field told us similar stories. He told that his relatives or friends are suffering from cancer or leukemia.
One of them is Ali, who was 18 years old at that time. His father tried to get him treated in Turkey by selling everything in his house.
Ali told that there are many people like him in the cancer hospital of Basra, who live near the oil fields.
The town of several thousand people has started called Rumelia a ‘shadow town’ by the local people because it is completely isolated and lacks even normal facilities.
Ali and his friends call it ‘Kabristan’. Ali told us, “We would be playing football and then we would have to run inside the houses because the clouds of smoke would make us suffocate. Oil was dripping from the sky. When I told the doctor at the cancer hospital in Basra that I live in this area, he said that this is the main reason for my illness.”
However, no research paper has been published regarding cancer in the communities living here. Later we came to know that the Iraqi government is deliberately suppressing information about this subject.
We learned from a leaked document from Basra’s health department that the cancer rate in Basra is three times higher than the officially released figures.
These documents were given to the People living and working in Rumelia and sent us videos that gave us a glimpse of the life of common people there.
But we were struggling to go there and do the film ourselves. On at least five occasions our official requests were rejected.
Spread over an area of ​​about 1800 square kilometers, this oil field, which is bigger than many small countries, is surrounded by many security posts.
Beyond these checkpoints are patrolled by the Iraqi Oil Police and private security forces working for the oil companies.
Apart from these, there are also Iraqi armed militias who have influence in the politics of southern Iraq and earn huge profits from the oil-related activities going on in their area.
Experiments in affected areas
We wanted to film an experiment so that we could monitor the pollution ourselves. We prepared this experiment with global pollution experts.
We rehearsed it before going to the roof of the Broadcasting House in London.
Experts advised us to use diffusion tubes. These were small copper cylinders with filters inside. They absorb the polluting elements.
We enlisted the help of Professor Shukri al-Hasan, the only environmental scientist in the region, to conduct these experiments in Iraq.
We conducted these experiments at different locations in the affected communities for two weeks. All these places, including Rumaila, were within ten kilometers of the oil field.
We also took urine samples from children here to check whether they contained particles of toxic substances associated with gas flares.
Dr. Shukri analyzes the urine test results of Iraqi children
Our tests showed that all 52 children we sampled had high levels of metabolized naphthalene (a potential carcinogen) in their urine.

The monitoring of air pollution that we had done also showed that the amount of benzene in the air here was three times more than the national limit.

In all the places we tested, its concentration was much higher than the safe level.

According to the World Health Organisation, the amount of benzene in the air should be zero.

What is gas flaring?

When companies dig to extract oil from the ground, then gas is also released. Allowing this natural gas to burn in the open is called gas flaring.

Oil companies sometimes allow gas to burn for safety reasons, to reduce gas pressure in underground oil reserves, and to reduce the risk of explosions.

If collecting this gas and then transporting it for sale is not economically profitable, then companies also burn this gas to save money.

Climate change is caused by gas flaring. Due to this in the year 2021, 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide was emitted into the atmosphere. This is more than the UK’s total annual emissions.

Due to this, chemicals like benzene, naphthalene, and black carbon also dissolve in the atmosphere, which can harm the health of the people around them.

After the release of the film, Iraq’s Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar Ismail has promised that by 2026 gas flaring from the Rumaila oil field will be ended.
But he issued this statement on the last day of his tenure and the targets announced earlier to end flaring have not been met.
It is not clear whose responsibility is to be fixed for ending the flaring. This oil field is owned by the Iraqi government but managed by British Petroleum along with its subsidiary companies.
Abdul Jabbar, the then oil minister, told that it was BP’s responsibility to end flaring.
At the same time, BP says that this responsibility lies with the operator of the oil field. The field is run by the Rumela Operating Organisation, a company founded by BP, in which BP holds a 48% stake.
Several people associated with BP contacted the and wanted to tell them how bad the real situation is on the ground.
Robert (name changed) is a former employee of BP Rumela. “BP, as the prime contractor, had a responsibility [to the Iraqi government] to implement the best international standards in the operation and management of Rumaila,” he told us.
He adds that the gas flaring at Rumella is “just the beginning” of “horrific practices that will not be accepted in any other BP operation, nor are they in line with the international standards that BP is responsible for enforcing.” “
In the oilfields, he said, failure to maintain and upgrade systems and infrastructure in the field had led to systemic problems, leading to “repeated oil spills, unplanned gas leaks and flaring.”
This claim has also been made by other BP employees and they have seen video evidence of the massive oil spill at the Rumaila oil field.
Two other former BP employees have told the that the site is not adequately monitored for pollution, causing them to worry about their safety.
A BP spokesperson said, “We strongly deny the claims you have made regarding operational safety at Rumelia. Major improvements have been made since BP began working with its other partners in Iraq. After years of struggle and under-investment, there is much more that needs to be done and we are fully committed to further improving Rumela and we are doing so immediately.”
As for Ali, his leukemia is in remission and his immune system is still weak.
His studies were left midway and now he cannot participate in sports. He had earlier represented his school in regional football competitions.
Many of the cancer-afflicted children we met have died. Thirteen years old Fatima and Mustafa were also among them, who used to live near the oil field.
Five-year-old Benin, who lives near Rumela, has also died. Benin’s elder brother had already died of this disease.
(left to right) Mustafa, Fatima, and Benin have died of cancer
Ali has contacted BP several times to seek compensation for his missed education.

Ali says that after the broadcast of the report, an employee of Rumela’s operating company came to him. Ali has again demanded damages from him.

He said, “I told him that look how sick I have become because of BP’s pollution and asked if BP would compensate me for the damage done to my health. But I haven’t received any response from their side yet.”

BP says that it is not appropriate to comment on the private conversation between Rumela’s employee and any person.

But BP has also said that soon after being contacted by the “BP has begun working closely with its partners at Rumela to look into the issues raised, and how to address where necessary.” In this, the process of helping the local community and understanding their concerns is also being reviewed. This work is still going on.


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