In 1927, an oil well was spudded at Baba Gurgur by the Turkish Petroleum Company (the forerunner of the Iraq Petroleum Company). At 3 a.m. on October 15, 1927, oil was struck and a great fountain spurted over the crown of the derrick to a height of 42 metres. It soon became clear the company had a major environmental crisis on its hands. The oil well was situated in a depression known as Wadi Naft that carried water off the low foothills, and crude oil was escaping down to the open desert. The spraying oil also threatened the local inhabitants, whose adjacent properties stood in danger of being destroyed, and there was risk of polluting the water supply.
Kirkuk, and the surrounding villages, were in danger of being drowned in a deluge of oil. Being unable to stop the flow immediately, the problem for the Company was how to contain it. Eventually it was decided to commence building dams in the wadi at distances of about 1.5 kilometres apart. A piece of low ground was selected about 24 kilometres away from the well, which could be easily dammed up to hold several weeks of oil production. It was estimated that 2,000 men would be required for the dam's construction. Men from the Jubur tribe along the Zab river, and the Obaid tribe on the Hawija plain were soon converging on Kirkuk. A few lucky men rode in vehicles, but most walked, in some cases distances up to 60 kilometres.
A blue mist formed at night in the hollows of the low hills caused by gas pockets. One night the poisonous effects of gas collecting in a depression killed two drillers and three Iraqi workers. The risk of fire was ever-present as for hundreds of metres around everything was smothered in oil. Men were working in gas masks almost naked in an endeavour to get near enough to set up some control appliances. The oil fell evenly in clouds all around the derrick and draw-works due to the windless autumn days. At length the cloud of oil was blown away from the derrick to allow work to start on the well head. This was achieved by setting up an aero engine which, when started, created the necessary draft to clear one side of the derrick.
It took ten days from the first eruption to close the control valve and shut off the supply of oil. By the time the well was capped, over 95,000 barrels of oil a day had spewed into the desert. But the approaching rainy season raised the spectre of another disaster: if the rains came and the wadi flooded, the oil would be carried down to the river and pollute water supplies across the whole country. Pumps were urgently installed to pump the oil back into the wells, but they made little impression. Desperate to remove the oil, large quantities were set alight. When the rains came the area was clear of oil. Work on clearing up the area was completed by Christmas Day 1927.
Environmental Conservation: Iraqi Style
Ceterum autem censeo Dylan esse delendam