WASHINGTON -- Oil is still leaking into the Persian Gulf, at a rate equivalent to one Exxon Valdez oil spill every six to 12 weeks, and nobody seems to be trying to stop it, U.S. government officials involved in assessing oil and smoke pollution in the gulf told a Senate hearing yesterday.
Damaged pipes, valves and tanks at Kuwait's Sea Island terminal and the giant Mina al Ahmadi storage depot are continuing to disgorge an estimated 1,500 to 6,000 barrels of crude oil into the gulf each day, said John Robinson, an emergency response expert for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"We do not know if this is being dealt with," he said -- a view supported by other officials and environmentalists who testified before the committee.
The Kuwaiti and Saudi governments, they said, seemed too preoccupied with other problems of postwar recovery -- reconstruction of their battered economies and social infrastructures -- to give much attention to the environmental devastation around them, even though it included history's largest oil spill and sun-blocking clouds of black smoke from more than 500 Kuwaiti oil well fires that are consuming up to 6 million barrels of oil a day.
"It amounts to a problem of priorities; there are not enough people or money to deal with the [environmental] problems effectively," said Richard S. Golob, publisher-editor of a U.S. oil pollution newsletter.
The oil leaks are emanating from the same facilities that Iraq's occupying forces started draining into the sea shortly after the outbreak of the gulf war, dumping an estimated 3 million to 4 million barrels into the sea.
This amounted to about 15 times the 262,000 barrels spilled in the biggest U.S. spill when the Exxon Valdez ran aground off Alaska in March 1989.
A few days after the gulf slick was spotted, on Jan. 26, U.S. bombers blew up a crucial valve station at Mina al Ahmadi, constricting the flow dramatically.
But it did not stop it completely -- crude oil has continued to bubble into the gulf, largely from underwater ruptures in the terminal pipes, posing "a hugely technical problem" for repairs, said Capt. Biff Holt, head of the U.S. Coast Guard's marine and environmental protection division.
"I didn't know about it until a few days ago," said Jim Makris, an Environmental Protection Agency director who returned from the gulf earlier this month after leading a U.S. governmental team to assess the extent of the region's air and water pollution.
Mr. Robinson said no one knew exactly how much oil had been dumped or had leaked into the gulf since the crisis began, but he estimated that it could be in excess of 4 million barrels -- about one-quarter of which had been, or could still be, recovered by pumping or skimming it from the surface and placing it in temporary holding pits along the Saudi coast.
He said that more than 800,000 barrels had already been collected this way and that at least 125,000 more could feasibly be recovered. An additional 1 million barrels, however, would not be removed because that oil had become mixed with sand or sunk to the seabed.
To remove it, he said, would do more harm than good to the gulf ecosystem.
The rest of the spilled oil, thought to total about 2 million barrels, had either sunk or was spread throughout the northern gulf in small slicks that could not easily be reached.
Mr. Robinson said he had received plenty of anecdotal information that the slick had wiped out thousands of sea birds (some reports have put the number at 20,000) and extensive areas of sea grass, vital to the Saudi shrimp industry and the nurturing of sea turtles.
But there was little scientific evidence to support these claims, he said.
The officials were testifying before a gulf pollution task force of theSenate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Mr. Golob said the Saudi government and international agencies had contributed a "grossly inadequate" $60 million to deal with the gulf's pollution problems.
He pointed out that Exxon Corp. spent more than $2 billion cleaning up the Valdez oil spill.
Moreover, U.S. government officials said that between 300 and 400 people were involved in the gulf cleanup, compared with 11,000 in the Alaskan spill.
Mr. Makris said air tests carried out by his team in Kuwait found that the density of the smoke from the burning wells could aggravate symptoms of people with asthma and chronic lung disease living in the vicinity.
But the smoke did not appear to pose a threat to global climate because it did not rise high enough. The smoke usually stayed below12,000 feet and only rarely rose to about 20,000 feet, he said.
There are no reliable data on the long-term effects of the oil fires, as nothing of that magnitude has occurred before, Mr. Makris said. The United States and international agencies, meanwhile, would continue to monitor the situation for as long as the fires continued.
"We're going to have to learn to live with this, I guess, for a long time," he said.