In spite of directives from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and provincial authorities, illegal oil refineries producing low-grade fuel continue to operate in Duhok governorate, polluting the environment and harming local residents.
"Since 2010, we have collected about 500 signatures to close down the refineries and then turned the petitions over to the Duhok provincial government," Idris Hassan Ali, a resident of the Baskey community in Semel, told Peregraf.
"But it has not benefited us," Ali said, adding that the refineries have been a problem for the last 15 years.
Many of the problematic facilities are located in Semel district, particularly around Kwashe village.
Residents complain that the pollution produced by the refineries has damaged hundreds of acres of agricultural land. People cannot sleep at night because of the terrible smell they produce.
"Dozens have fallen ill with various diseases, especially skin diseases," Ali said.
In addition to pollution and environmental damage, the quality of the refined gasoline made by the facilities is of low quality and can damage machinery and vehicles.
The refineries used to operate in plain sight and their locations are known to government and environmental officials, but some have continued to operate in contravention of government orders.
Their products are sold on the black market, local residents allege.
After numerous complaints, the Duhok provincial government issued a directive on August 25, 2021 ordering the closure of 45 refineries that were working illegally at that time.
Ten did not stop the work because they thought the government was not serious and were taken to court, according to Mayor of Semel Khalil Mahmood.
Twelve others were selected for incorporation into the government’s official refining operations, but did not comply with instructions and therefore did not receive permits. It is not clear how many continue to operate at some level.
Mahmood told Peregraf that "no refinery will work formally in the district, but sometimes they work clandestinely or they may work at a time when we are not aware."
But residents say the problem is pervasive.
"Refineries continue to work, most of them are smuggling and illicitly working, but we don't know where they get crude oil," Ali claimed.
"I don't know why they can't enforce their own decisions. They commemorate Earth Day annually in front of the people, but we are about to suffocate because of the bad smell from the refineries," he said.
Environmental groups say they support Semel’s residents in calling for the illegal refineries to be closed down or brought up to code because of the damage they cause.
"We have set up a standing committee in Kwashi to prevent refinery work, but we cannot appoint a policeman for each refinery and monitor them 24-hours a day," Dilshad Abdul-Rahman, director-general of the Environment Office in Duhok governorate, told Peregraf.
"There were refineries that were working night and day, but after the closure decisions, they no longer work [at the same level], although some of them might try to operate illegally," Abdul-Rahman added.
He said that his office has issued fines of 8 million Iraqi dinars ($5,500) to several refinery owners and are working to file cases in court against other polluters for violating the KRG’s Law No. 8 of 2008 on Environmental Protection and Improvement.
Judges can impose prison sentences and fines of up to 200 million Iraqi dinars ($137,000) for the most serious and repeat violators, though these sanctions are rarely employed.
Abdul-Samad Telei, head of the Duhok Provincial Council’s Energy and Industry Committee, told Peregraf that action across two KRG cabinets and by the provincial government had not deterred refinery operators.
The government "decided to close the refineries, but it was useless. After any decision was made, [the refineries] restarted work after a short period of time," Telei said.
He admitted that the pressure campaign only meant that there were fewer refineries in operation rather than eliminating them entirely and that the only way to do so was to cut off their access to crude oil, which has a political dimension.
"Some of them have supporters and they receive crude oil to refine, despite the Council of Ministers’ decision to close them down."
In the face of these challenges, illegal refineries continue to operate in Duhok, harming the environment and local residents, largely immune from government sanction.