Blaze and toxic smoke follow oil pipeline leak in Iran, but 'worst is yet to come'

An oil leak at a pipeline near the village of Sarkhun in southwestern Iran ignited on Dec. 13, 2020 and sent black smoke into the sky.
An oil leak at a pipeline near the village of Sarkhun in southwestern Iran ignited on Dec. 13, 2020 and sent black smoke into the sky. © Observers

On December 13 an oil leak from a pipeline in southwestern Iran ignited, sending columns of toxic black smoke hundreds of metres into the air. The pipeline is located on the edge of Sarkhun, a small village in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province. Our Observers in the village have lived with the risk for years, knowing they’re next to a 40-year-old pipeline that could ignite at any moment.


Videos posted on social media show the village of Sarkhun surrounded by mountains, with a huge plume of smoke in the air. People can be seen running in every direction, screaming, gathering their loved ones, their belongings, and their cattle.

The leak began after a landslide in the region that damaged the pipeline. The pipeline carries crude oil from the south of Iran to Isfahan in central Iran, and passes just a few dozen meters from Sarkhun village. 

The fire spread beyond the pipeline and it took firefighters two days to fully extinguish it. However the clean-up of the oil spill continues, and could take weeks or even months to complete, according to experts consulted by FRANCE 24.

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In this video filmed in Sarkhun, southwestern Iran, on December 13, 2020 thick smoke is seen spreading from a fire at an oil pipeline.

“It’s the fifth incident in last 20 years”

Shahin [not his real name] lives in Sarkhun:

"I was at work that day. I heard the pipeline had been damaged and oil was pouring into the river. After a few hours, it caught on fire. There was smoke everywhere. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t breathe. Fortunately no one was right next to the pipeline, but some people were injured, mostly by inhaling heavy smoke. Most people left the village minutes after the incident, except for poor people with no access to transportation, or farmers who had herds to take care of.


This tweet reads: “The fire is not totally extinguished yet on December 14”

The fire spread up the mountainside. It took three hours for firefighters to extinguish the fire around the pipeline, but two days for them to put out the fires that had spread higher up the mountain. But the main problem for us was not and is not the fire, it’s the smoke and the smell of oil. There’s a sticky black layer of ash on everything that you can imagine: it’s on our furniture, the walls of our houses, on our cars.

It’s on the crops in the fields, and even on the cows. And we can’t drink the water in our homes because the source it comes from has been polluted. Our crops have been destroyed by the spill. I don’t know how long it will take the fields to recover.

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Photos and videos of the fire have drawn a lot of attention to our village and this pipeline. But the pipeline has been causing trouble for us for years. This is the fifth explosion we’ve had in the last 20 years.

The pipeline has been leaking for about five years – not a huge amount of oil, but enough that it has destroyed some businesses further down the river. There were some fish farms there, but oil pollution forced them to close down.

We want the authorities to relocate the pipeline, to move it far from the river and the village. Thousands of people downstream use the river water for drinking and irrigation. It’s dangerous and not healthy. 

This video tweeted on December 14, 2020 shows people near the village of Sarkhun looking at apparent oil contamination in the Sarkhun River following a leak and fire at an oil pipeline.

“The damage is done”

The Sarkhun River runs into the Karun river, a source of drinking water and irrigation for millions of people in southwestern Iran.

Roham [not his real name] is an environment and water resources expert familiar with conditions in southern Iran. He explains the effects this kind of oil leak can have on humans and the environment:

When crude oil mixes with water sources, at first it sinks, because it’s heavy. But eventually it comes to the surface and spreads. This is how it spreads over huge areas in running water.

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People watching firefighters extinguish the pipeline on fire.

According to some researchers there are about 300 carcinogenic substances in crude oil. So when it’s mixed with sources of drinking water that can lead to a human catastrophe downstream.

Even if they succeed in finding alternative sources of drinking water for the people downstream, these poisons will enter plants and vegetables that are eaten by humans and farm animals.

Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum is equipped with efficient oil absorbents, but it’s impossible to clean up all the leaked oil. The ministry will be able to clean the water in the Karun-4 dam, by measuring the water quality and stopping the pollution. But that’s 40 km downstream from Sarkhun. Thousands of people live in that 40-kilometre zone.

The oil from the spill has spread already over a vast surface and the damage is done. I hope this time they do their job properly. I think the worst is yet to come.

Yes, there was a landslide that caused the damage, but this excuse is not acceptable. Everyone in the region knows that this pipeline is about 40 years old and needs to be replaced, but the Petroleum Ministry just does not care. 

The Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari provincial government on December 16 announced measures they had taken to clean up the pollution and keep citizens safe. Officials said nine special trucks had been dispatched to the area with environmental clean-up equipment. Khosrwi Kiani, head of the province’s department of crisis management said that more than 30 workers were working on cleaning the environment of pollution and were distributing “aid packages containing milk, masks and other hygiene necessities".

However these temporary measures were too little too late according to some Iranian environment activists. On December 15, a local Iranian environmental NGO filed a suit against Petroleum Ministry, alleging negligence in the maintenance of the pipeline.