War has long history of wreaking havoc on environment

As the battle in Iraq draws to a close, environmentalists and scientists warn war historically has taken its toll on the environment.

“Long after hostilities cease and peace is achieved, the lingering consequences of the war continue to harm Iraq’s ecology and people,” said Ross Mirkarimi, an environmental crimes investigator for the San Francisco’s district attorney’s office.

The world has paid an environmental price for wars over the last 60 years, Mirkarimi said.

“The contamination or hoardings of water sources that travel between combatant territories as witnessed throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America Ö (and) scorched earth (policies) have caused extinction of several species of flora and fauna as well,” he said.

Operation Enduring Freedom

Afghanistan’s troubled environment has now suffered through 23 years of almost continuous warfare. Thirty percent of its forests have been lost since 1979, according to a report released by the United Nations Environmental Program.

The program said the country as a whole now lives with four years of drought, resulting in degraded farmland. Groundwater levels for drinking wells have slipped and what little water is left has become heavily salted.

Serbia and Yugoslavia

Thirty oil tankards in Novi Sad, on the banks of the Danube, were set afire and burned for nearly 10 days during the mid-1990s NATO campaign in Yugoslavia.

Serbian media reported seeing a Danube oil slick one inch thick and 21 miles long.

Journalists in Kosovo were implored to wear gas masks even after the ceasefire and reported seeing NATO soldiers only drinking bottled water.

According to recent U.N. reports, Yugoslavia is enduring unusually high rates of mercury, asbestos and dioxin poisoning. The reports state Serbia still has dangerously low levels of drinkable water.

The NATO forces in Kosovo also dropped thousands of depleted uranium bombs that hit chemical factories, coal plants and oil refineries.

Operation Desert Shield

Mirkarimi said he doubts there will be an investigation of “the millions of ammunition rounds made from depleted uranium” used in Kosovo and other conflicts – including the first Persian Gulf war.

Mirkarimi has been to Iraq twice, once on behalf of a team of Harvard University public health scientists to study the impact of the gulf war and the U.N. sanctions. Later he followed up the study with a group organized by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds of depleted uranium bullet and rocket shells, which oxidize on impact, litter Iraq. The oxidization creates a dust that destroys tanks and bunkers, yet the U.S. Defense Department does not currently label it as a toxic substance.

“The ongoing use of depleted uranium is the real pressing and urgent issue right now,” said Steve Kretzman, an oil industry analyst for the Washington-based nonprofit Institute for Policy Studies.

Dan Fahey, a board member of Veterans for Common Sense, served in the U.S. Navy from 1990-91 and was stationed in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.

“Science and common sense dictate it is unwise to use a weapon that distributes large quantities of a toxic waste in areas where people live, work, grow food or draw water,” Fahey said in a prepared statement.

Iraqi troops set fire to more than 732 oil wells and burned over 6 million barrels of oil per day in March 1991, creating a cloud of smoke stretching over 10,000 square miles.

In the fall of 1995, Iraqi warships filled with chemical munitions sank off the coast of Kuwait.

In Kuwait City, truck and tank tracks have accelerated erosion, and massive sand dunes are beginning to shift. Oil has leaked into aquifers and contaminated over two-thirds of the fresh water reserve.

Iraq’s water supply comes from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which the Saddam Hussein administration dammed and drained after the 1991 retreat. This has led to skyrocketing typhoid and child mortality rates every year since. Lung cancer, birth defects and death rates are also on the rise in Kuwait.

According to BBC reports, between 10 percent and 25 percent of the over 30 million cluster bombs dropped during the gulf war did not explode but still pose a serious threat to Iraqi civilians and U.S. peacekeeping forces.

Each bomb scatters approximately 200 smaller “bomblets,” which are usually painted bright yellow and are approximately the size of a soda can. More than 1,600 Kuwaitis have died from bomblet explosions since the end of the first gulf war.

Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, currently stationed in Qatar, is the Defense Department’s spokesman on cluster bombs and depleted uranium. Thorp did not respond to multiple e-mails and phone calls.

Operation Ranch Hand

From 1962-71, U.S. forces sprayed over 19 million gallons of Agent Orange herbicide, which includes the compound dioxin, over a 3-million-acre stretch of southeast Asia.

Dioxin was banned by the mid-1970s in the U.S. commercial marketplace.

Vietnamese scientists have also linked dioxin with cancer, heart disease and diabetes. A 2000 Air Force study confirmed their findings.

Surveys conducted by Vietnamese researchers found nearly 1 million civilians exposed to Agent Orange had serious health problems. Of those victims, 100,000 possessed some sort of birth defect. Fifteen percent of those born with the defects are already dead.

The U.S. military also used cluster bombs, which are designed to create “pressure waves” that can rupture spleens or cause intestines to explode, in Laos and Indochina.

Rules and regulations

The Vietnam War’s environmental destruction inspired two international treaties: the Environmental Modification Convention and an amendment to the Geneva Convention called Protocol 1.

The environmental modification treaty was drafted to ban the

purposeful manipulation of nature, such as U.S. flooding attempts, during wartime.

Protocol 1 condemned damage to natural resources crucial to civilians during times of war.

The United States still refuses to ratify either measure.

“The Pentagon consistently requests and receives exemptions from the president or Congress when they don’t want to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act,” Mirkarimi said.

He said new legislation is needed to solve the problem.

“We need stronger environmental laws that can be enforced Ö whether during peacetime or war,” he said.

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.