Responding to Eco-Terrorism

by Roy Popkin
[EPA Journal - July/August 1991]

Early this year, Iraq committed ecological terrorism in Kuwait. It deliberately spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf. It torched and sabotaged more than 500 Kuwaiti oil wells, storage tanks, and refineries.

The January oil spill was the largest ever: an estimated six million barrels of oil, 25 times the 250,000 barrels from the Exxon Valdez that fouled Alaska's Prince William Sound.

The oil fires started in mid-February were the worst the world has ever suffered: From three to six million barrels of oil went up in smoke each day at the peak of the fires.

Thick black oily clouds rose thousands of feet, occasionally turning midday into midnight in Kuwait City and in Saudi Arabian cities just south of the border. Said EPA Administrator William K. Reilly, after visiting the area in May: "If Hell had a national park, it would be those burning oil fires." Reilly also noted: "I have never seen any one place before where there was so much compressed environmental degradation."

The potential environmental disaster was enormous. U.S. and international teams quickly formed to help Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf nations deal with the threats to public health--including the health of coalition armed forces and diplomatic personnel--and to the region's ecology. EPA staff members took part in this multinational campaign to cope with Iraq's environmental atrocities. Herewith, some highlights of what followed.

The Oil Spill

The U.S. interagency assistance team (USIAT), including EPA staffers, arrived in Saudi Arabia January 28 in the thick of the war. It was soon joined by experts from the United Kingdom, Spain, Norway, and The Netherlands. A fundamental precept of environmental emergency response--to stop the spill at its source, then clean up--could not be followed, for the source of the spill was in Iraqi-held Kuwait. Thus, the priorities were:

  • To keep the oil away from desalination plants, including the world's largest at Jubayl, which produces more than 200 million gallons of fresh water daily and provides 80 percent of Riyadh's water

  • To remove the oil from the surface quickly, before it settled to the bottom near the plant intakes and became part of the ocean water inflow system

  • to recover oil offshore to minimize environmental impacts

  • To protect environmentally sensitive areas and key shoreline facilities

The U.S. team, headed by the Coast Guard, helped develop a plan to divert oil away from desalting plant intakes. Containment booms were put in place and oil recovery skimmers put to work. In the months since the spill, about one million barrels of pure oil have been recovered, along with more than one million barrels of mixed oil and water. Some oil has coagulated on the ocean floor. Some has stained beaches and wetlands, and some has evaporated.

Although Saudi Arabia and Aramco, its national company, had experienced oil spills before, no one was prepared for the unprecedented six-million barrel spill that covered about 600 square miles of water and blackened about 300 miles of shoreline. The oil poured into a warm, shallow, contained area that takes five years to exchange waters with the nearby Indian Ocean. In contrast, Prince William Sound takes weeks to months to exchange waters with the Gulf of Alaska. Oil went as far as 20 miles inland and fouled wetland salt marshes and desert shore.

Sadly, the shortage of equipment and the remoteness of some areas made it impossible to protect some of the environmentally sensitive wetlands and mangrove swamps in the intertidal zones that provide habitat and nesting areas for many migratory and native birds, including the flamingo and the Socotra cormorant, an endangered species found only in the Arabian Gulf. Thousands of birds died. A wildlife rescue project funded by the Saudi Royal Commission and staffed by volunteers did save several hundred birds.

At last report the Saudis were considering using bioremediation techniques similar to those employed by EPA in Prince William Sound to help rid beaches and wetlands of their black viscous covering. The oil spills stopped when the war ended, but the cleanup will continue for years.

The Oil Fires

On March 10, an EPA-led interagency air monitoring team went to the Gulf, under State Department auspices. The team included seven EPA staffers and experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Centers for Disease Control, and the Department of Energy. They carried with them as much field monitoring equipment as they could.

Jim Makris, director of EPA's Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Office, headed the team. He recalls: "We needed to find out if there was a health emergency--were people going to die because of the polluted smoke? And we needed to determine if the urgency of the situation necessitated evacuating the local population, the coalition forces, the dependents of U.S. and other foreign embassy personnel."

Early and subsequent monitoring found insignificant quantities of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, the key ingredients of the killer smogs that hit Donora, Pennsylvania, in 1948, London in 1953, and the New York metropolitan area in 1953 and 1961. It's not known if the expected sulfur pollutants were and are being incinerated by the intense fires.

Natural background particulate levels in the area are relatively high; particulate levels found by the team were not high enough to cause concern.

Although people in the area have been exposed to an increased health risk, the extent of that risk is still undetermined and may not be known for years. Most at risk from air pollution are people with asthma or other chronic lung ailments. Admissions to Kuwait's clinics and hospitals showed no increase in patients with respiratory problems. The same was true for coalition troops. An extensive report issued recently by two teams of scientists that went to the area under the auspices of the National Science Foundation confirmed the interagency team's early findings.

Experts from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and other Department of Health and Human Services agencies have been working with Kuwaiti and military medical personnel to spot any immediate health effects. They also are assembling baseline health data on residents and on U.S. troops and diplomatic personnel and their families. They will continue to watch the health of these people.

As this issue of EPA Journal went to press, fire-fighting teams had gotten some 249 oil well fires in Kuwait under control. But hundreds more continue to burn. Officials estimate that they will have all but 100 of the fires extinguished by December but that it will take at least a year to put out the remaining fires and to cap the burning and other damaged wells that are leaking oil. Priority is being given to the smokiest fires and those closest to hospitals and urban areas.

Fires shoot flames like blowtorches hundreds of feet into the air. Dense smoke clouds the skies to s of thousands of feet. The plume of smoke extends for hundreds of miles. Transposed over the United States, the plume would reach from New England to Florida. In some areas around the fires, the desert is covered with a black crust. Lakes of oil have formed near many of the damaged wells, posing a threat of ground-level fires and pollution of underground water.

In addition to the dense smoke and black oily rain from the oil well fires, emergency teams trying to monitor the pollution from the fires--and the fire-fighting teams--also had to cope with unexploded land mines, bombs, and shells. The lack of adequate technology, compounded by shortages of water, electric power, and locally available equipment, made it impossible to extinguish the fires quickly. For all involved, it was indeed Hell's national park.

What's Ahead

Fortunately, recent assessments by EPA and the National Science Foundation show that initial fears about devastating effects of Iraq's eco-terrorism may not have been warranted. Despite those reassuring findings, monitoring will continue for years--of the people, air, water, soil; of the total environment. Medical follow-ups and meteorological and air monitoring, in the Gulf and around the world, could uncover as yet undetected pollution problems or latent human health effects. The long-term impacts of the spill and the fires simply are not yet known.

With help from EPA and others, the Gulf governments are installing permanent monitoring systems and early warning networks. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia intend to monitor water supplies for contamination from leaking oil and airborne pollutants. They intend to study the long-range environmental effects of the oil spill and the fires.

For EPA itself, the reaction to the oil spill and oil well fires demonstrated that the Agency can respond quickly to environmental emergencies, even as far away as the Persian Gulf. Says EPA's Jim Makris: "The U.S. government brought good environmental science and good operational capability immediately to the scene in the Gulf."