WASHINGTON -- A thick and sticky blanket of oil spreading over the Persian Gulf could devastate marine life for years to come as well as wreak havoc on the economic lifeblood of people up and down the gulf coast, environmentalists said.
The ecologists expressed outrage yesterday at the apparently deliberate leakage of what could amount to almost a quarter-billion gallons of crude oil into the gulf.
An oil spill expert in Bahrain told The Sun that unless the pipeline was closed down, there seemed little chance of stopping 168 million to 210 million gallons of Kuwaiti crude oil from draining into the sea -- at least 15 times the amount of oil released from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989.
Derek Brown, coordinator of environmental affairs for the Bahrain Petroleum Co., said the tanks at the Al-Ahmadi refinery, from which most of the oil appeared to be coming, used gravity -- not mechanical pumps -- to feed the oil to the Sea Island terminal from which the oil was pouring.
A Saudi official had said that the oil was being pumped into the sea. But Mr. Brown, a Briton who has worked 30 years in the gulf and visited the refinery many times, disputed that statement.
"It would be very difficult to stop the flow," he said. "I don't think bombing it would do anything expect punch holes in the pipe and allow more oil to escape."
The tank farm at the Al-Ahmadi terminal -- by far the largest oil facility in Kuwait -- contained between 4 million and 5 million barrels -- 168 million to 210 million gallons -- of crude oil, he said.
This would amount to roughly three times the largest oil spill in history -- when the Amoco Cadiz sank off the French coast in 1978, spewing 65 million gallons.
Sea birds would die by the thousands, Mr. Brown said. And the sticky blanket of oil would decimate vast stretches of coastal and undersea habitats -- wiping out rare coral colonies, shellfish and other marine organisms throughout the gulf.
The gulf fishing industry -- principal livelihood for thousands of villagers along the coasts of Saudi Arabia and Iran -- would also be ruined, he said.
Mr. Brown dismissed the possibility of setting the spill afire to lessen the environmental damage.
"They can't set this oil on fire -- that's a lot of rubbish. You could sit on it with an incendiary bomb and it wouldn't burn," he said, explaining that spilled oil loses volatility quickly through evaporation and wave action.
A Saudi military spokesman said that the spill was first detected three days ago. By late yesterday, there were reports that it had spread more than 50 miles southward along the Saudi coast.
There is concern that the oil could clog water inlets of desalination plants that supply water for drinking and industry along the coast. But Mr. Brown said Saudi authorities were well equipped to protect the inlets because the prospect of oil spillage was a constant concern in the region.
The worst spill in the area occurred six years ago, he said, when Iraq blew up an Iranian offshore oil well during the war between the two countries. That spill lasted a year, he said, spewing an estimated 42 million gallons.
"This is what we feared would happen all along if war broke out," said Peg Stevenson, a senior spokeswoman for Greenpeace, which is siding with the anti-war movement in the United States. "We are going to see that war is devastating not only to people but also to our environment."
Ms. Stevenson compared the enclosed sea of the gulf to that of Prince William Sound in Alaska, where America's worst oil spill occurred -- a leakage of 11 million gallons from the Exxon Valdez after it ran aground in March 1989.
"Since [the oil] is enclosed with nowhere to go, it settles on the ocean floor and will remain there for years, getting churned up by storms and heavy waves and causing damage over a long period of time," she said.