TAWKE, Iraq (Reuters) - Twenty minutes drive west of Erbil off the road to Mosul, 10-15 large silverskinned storage tanks appear in the dusty brown landscape. These belong to the Turkish-owned La Naz Asfalt Company.
Past the entrance guarded by Peshmerga Kurdish army soldiers with AK-47s sit four crude processing units, like barrels on their sides. These tanks with rounded ends are simple mechanisms for heating crude oil, constructed at a total cost of $700,000. Similar devices have sprung up across Kurdistan to process the region’s growing crude output. Foreign oil executives dismissively describe the devices, usually imported through Turkey, as “kettles.”
This is one of Kurdistan’s larger topping plants. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, processing 700 tons of crude each day. Towering above all the tanks is the tall, slender distillation tower, where La Naz collects gasoline and diesel produced by heating the crude.
The company sells the fuel into the local market but is left with heavy fuel oil, which is then processed again in steam-heated storage tanks to produce asphalt to supply Kurdistan’s roaring road-building business. Asphalt is the heaviest and but one of the least valuable of the products extracted from crude.
Beside one large storage tank, six-foot flames roar into the sky, bellowing dark smoke. Workers deliberately started the fire to heat the solidified heavy fuel oil inside. Where the flames wouldn’t reach, they attached blocks of foam to retain the heat.
In a western refinery, smoking a cigarette would earn a worker instant dismissal. Here, beside a raging blaze, no one bats an eyelid. The site’s manager explains: “We built it wrong.” When the fuel oil storage tank was built, they forgot to install the steam heating system that would prevent the fuel coagulating.
The site was built on land donated by the Kurdistan Regional Government to encourage development. The manager says business is good, even though imports of cheap asphalt from the rest of Iraq have dented prices. The site is surfaced with concrete in parts, elsewhere gravel and dust.
On the other side of the facility, which occupies the space of around two football pitches, a worker washes out a diesel tank, the contaminated water falling onto the ground below.
Stains on the top of one tank suggest it has previously overflowed. Dark stains litter the walls of another, where the welds between the panels appear to have failed, allowing fuel to seep out. There’s a heavy oily smell, not the headiness of gasoline you get on a filling station forecourt.
Editing by Sara Ledwith and Simon Robinson