It’s the diplomatic, strategic and fiscal boondoggle that keeps, well, taking, I guess. The war of choice in Iraq has already cost the United States a great many lives and vast sums that obviously could have been better spent, say preparing for deep water oil mishaps, developing an alternative energy industry or preventing mass layoffs in public education—its total projected costs now easily exceed $2 trillion. Now a Times of London investigation suggests the U.S. will have to make good on another tab run up during the nation’s seven-plus years in Iraq: the cleanup costs. According to The Times, the U.S. military did not exactly follow a “keep Iraq beautiful” campaign when it came to the inevitable waste generated by its broad presence in Iraq.
As the mission winds down and the U.S. military decommissions hundreds of bases around the country, the disturbing scale of a widespread problem in hazardous waste disposal is becoming more evident. We may not be able to leave behind a functioning multiparty democracy in Iraq, but according to The Times our “toxic legacy” there appears certain: “An investigation by The Times in five Iraqi provinces has found that hazardous material from US bases is being dumped locally rather than sent back to America, in clear breach of Pentagon rules. North and west of Baghdad, engine oil is leaking from 55-gallon drums into dusty ground, open acid canisters sit within easy reach of children, and discarded batteries lie close to irrigated farmland."
According to The Times, a private contractor working for the U.S. military estimates that perhaps 5,000 tons of hazardous waste will be left behind by departing troops. “But even this figure appears to be only a partial estimate. Brigadier General Kendall Cox, who is responsible for engineering and infrastructure in Iraq, told The Times yesterday that he was in the process of disposing of 14,500 tonnes of oil and soil contaminated with oil. 'This has accumulated over seven years,” he said.'"
The unfortunate General Cox, put in the unhappy position of explaining all this to The Times, says the United States is committed to a thorough cleanup before we turn the lights out on Iraq. An Iraqi waste contractor blames the mess on Kuwaiti and Lebanese waste subcontractors hired by the military, who, he alleges, illegally, and extravagantly, dumped at undisclosed local sites materials they were being paid to dispose of safely. Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for the toxic military waste—anything from simple motor oil to dangerous acids to artillery propellant—falls properly on Uncle Sam. The dangerous chemicals are already injuring Iraqi scrap metal workers unlucky enough to come in contact with them after purchasing supposedly "safe" scrap materials and it is currently anyone's guess what effect the toxic leftovers may have on Iraqi generations to come; they already have enough to contend with from Saddam Hussein's chemically-enhanced reign of terror and detonations of chemical dumps during the first Gulf War and in the intervening years before the second.
Nirmeen Othman, the Iraqi Environment Minister, is launching an official investigation, apparently determined to ensure that before they leave, the Americans take out the trash.