Wind holds off oil slick as crew readies

February 03, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Experts say favorable winds are likely to keep the giant oil slick in the Persian Gulf away from Saudi Arabia's largest desalination plant for at least several more days, giving workers more time to bring cleanup equipment from around the world.

Winds blowing from the south have prevented the oil from reaching Jubail, about 160 miles south of Kuwait and site of the largest complex for refining salt water into drinking water for civilians and for the coalition's military.

But even with a grace period of several days, officials say they doubt they will have assembled sufficient equipment to deflect the spill from all the industrial sites the kingdom identifies as "critical."

"The longer the weather cooperates, the better the chance that rTC they'll be prepared," said Coast Guard Capt. Donald Jensen, head of a team of U.S. experts sent by the White House. "As for the things being brought in, I can't say that it's been sufficient."

Saudi and U.S. officials concede that they are powerless to prevent at least some of the oil from washing ashore, but they are trying to keep it away from key industrial sites, including oil refineries and the desalination plant.

"We had a southerly wind that has given us breathing room of a day and a half," said Abdulla Dabbagh, director of the Research Institute at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. Weather forecasters predict those winds will continue, "and that will give us two or three days more."

A thick layer of oil has moved as far south of Safaniya, 75 miles north of Jubail, while a light sheen has reached as far south as Ras al Zur, less than 50 miles from the plant.

"We expect it to stay there, or even go back up of north," Mr. Dabbagh said.

Oil began leaking from Kuwait's offshore tanker station Jan. 19 to form the largest spill in history, totaling at least 7 million barrels, or 294 million gallons.

U.S. military commanders say Iraq deliberately opened valves at storage tanks and five vessels to cause the spill.

Most of the leakage was stopped when U.S. aircraft dropped laser-guided bombs on the tanker station and also set the oil ablaze. But the spill continued to be fed by leaks at other war-damaged refineries, including some at Khafji, Saudi Arabia.

Eleven countries have contributed experts or equipment to the cleanup effort, focusing on industrial sites rather than fisheries or other wildlife, and on the scramble to fly bulky equipment to the area.

Emergency crews are assembling booms designed to deflect the slick and have finished work on an initial line of booms around Jubail, Mr. Dabbagh said.

Captain Jensen's team recommended placing more lines of booms farther out to sea, an effort hampered by the lack of necessary equipment and by the lack of time to bring it from abroad. "Nobody is prepared for a spill of this magnitude," he said.

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