War's legacy: a huge disaster for environment WAR IN THE GULF

March 03, 1991|By New York Times News Service

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- The war in the Persian Gulf has caused an ecological calamity affecting a large chunk of Asia that experts say may take years to clean up.

At least three separate slicks containing millions of gallons of crude oil have coated swaths of the Kuwaiti and Saudi coastline, killing marine life and threatening the commercial shrimp and fishing industries that are an important element of the economies of several gulf states.

Dense, dark smoke from more than 600 burning oil wells in Kuwait hangs in a stinking, soupy pall over cities and farmland from Turkey to Iran, with predictions that plumes could reach northern India.

The fires have spewed tons of toxic chemicals into the air, prompting doctors to gear up for respiratory illnesses and farmers to fear for crops tainted by greasy rains washing cancer-causing particles from the sky.

"The ecology of the Persian Gulf is hurting pretty badly right now," said William R. Moomaw, director of the Center for Environmental Management at Tufts University. "The level of air pollution from the burning oil wells exceeds by hundreds of times the most polluted areas of the world."

For the most part, environmentalists have watched the fouling unfold from the sidelines of a restricted war zone. With hostilities ending, cleanup specialists are rushing to stem the fires and scoop up what remains of the spills.

But many of the oil wells now ablaze produce by natural pressure, not by mechanical pumps, and are extremely difficult and dangerous to extinguish.

Some experts said that each of the fires could take at least two weeks' work to extinguish, and with only a handful of companies trained in this kind of work, it could be a year or two before all the fires are out.

The outlook is equally gloomy at sea, where smoke from the burning wells and the danger of floating mines has hampered efforts by spotter planes to map the oil spills and dispatch oil-skimming ships to suck them up.

Only about 5.4 million gallons have been recovered from the main spill, which the Saudis originally estimated to be 450 million gallons. Between 66 million and 250 million gallons are still floating, with the remainder having evaporated, sunk in a suffocating mantle over coral reefs, or washed ashore onto mud flats and marshes that serve as habitats for scores of species.

Southerly winds have stalled the advancing spill at the tiny island of Abu Ali, 25 miles north of the Saudi town of Jubail, where the world's largest desalting plant is located.

Workers have placed double and triple layers of floating booms around the plant's intake pipes to try to keep the oil out. But some experts fear that toxic chemicals dissolved in the seawater could force the plant to close, cutting off the main source of fresh water for eastern Saudi Arabia and the capital, Riyadh.

Two smaller spills carrying millions of gallons of oil -- one floating about 45 miles north of Jubail and another in the center of the northern gulf -- promise to tax recovery efforts.

"The environmental damage is very serious," said Abdullah Dabbagh, research director at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran. "What we need most is more people to go out and remove the oil."

At risk in the gulf is an abundance of wildlife, including 180 species of mollusks, 106 species of fish, 450 species of animals that live in the chain of coral reefs, five species of dolphins, at least three types of whales and scores of different sea birds.

Although its coastline is largely undeveloped, the gulf's high salinity, relatively shallow waters and steady traffic of oil tankers, which frequently discharge their oily ballast into the sea, has made survival a challenge for most marine life.

"The ecosystem in the gulf has been stressed out for decades," said Thomas M. Miller, a spokesman for the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington. "There are species living on the brink now, and it won't take much to push them over."

Considering the Persian Gulf's counterclockwise currents and the three years it takes for water to flush through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, coastal experts fear that oil remaining on the surface will harm the gulf's east and west coasts.

Little is known about the exact size of the oil slicks, largely because they are in waters that have been off-limits to researchers, Mr. Dabbagh said.

After weeks of confusion among Saudi agencies, the cleanup received a boost recently when the state-owned oil conglomerate, Saudi Aramco, assumed control of coordinating the response from another agency, the Meteorology and Environmental Protection Administration.

The company is reviewing a variety of cleanup methods, including solvents derived from orange rind, highly absorbent wool booms from New Zealand and oil-eating bacteria created in France.

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