Persian Gulf Oil Inferno – March 1, 1991

This new form of terrorism brought a wave of toxic gases over Kuwait and its surrounding area. At the same time, large areas of ocean life in the Gulf were destroyed.

At the beginning of August 1990, Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in order to gain control of its oilfields and make it a province of Iraq. The United Nations immediately condemned this action and, when diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis failed, a coalition of many countries was assembled to reclaim Kuwait by force. Air attacks on Iraq were launched early in January of 1991 and later ground forces crossed into Kuwait. The ground war was brief and by the end of February 1991 Iraqi military units had been completely defeated. There were many Iraqi deaths, perhaps as many as 100,000. Among the armies of the coalition between two and three hundred were killed.

This might have been the end of the story but Iraq decided to launch a series of environmental acts of terrorism as it withdrew from Kuwait. A flood of oil was released into the Gulf destroying most forms of life there. At the same time, hundreds of oil wells were set on fire within Kuwait, creating a massive blanket of air pollution. From the air the fires from the oil wells made the country look like a huge black blanket through which oil flares shot upward from time to time. It was a double terrorist catastrophe with great implications for the future of the surrounding environment, comparable in its destructiveness to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and greater in its extent than any other oil spill in history.

Animals and people alike were having trouble breathing. There was a stinging unpleasant smell everywhere that irritated lungs, clothing, and skin. On the ground there were pools of oil that caught fire occasionally as some nearby flame reached them. Trees, buildings, cars, anything on the land surface, all were covered with tar. Specialists in fire control were brought in at an early stage from all over the world. So challenging did the task seem to them that their first estimate for getting rid of all the fires was five years. Logistical problems faced them on every hand. The airport was not accessible so they had to wait for the smoke and fires around it to be cleared before they could bring in personnel and materials.

During their short period of occupation, the Iraqis had stripped the country of everything movable. Roads had to be created from fire site to fire site because the soldiers had cut defensive trenches across highways. In addition, the retreating army had left stores of ammunition and discarded vehicles everywhere. Minefields had to be cleared but no one knew where they were. Frequently the fire crews used huge bulldozers to pile up heaps of sand to fill in the trenches. At the same time they were able to use these mountains of sand to absorb the impact of exploding mines and thus get rid of them.

The scale of destruction by the Iraqis was so great that every innovative method possible was welcomed. Every day, about 15 percent of the world’s consumption of oil was going up in smoke or forming rivers of oil. That amounted to six million barrels, roughly the quantity consumed daily by all the gas-powered vehicles in the United States. This went on for almost two months before the first fires were extinguished. Two months supply of oil is often the amount of emergency reserves stored in western countries. Furthermore, Kuwait was not the only casualty of Iraqi’s environmental terrorism. All the surrounding countries, covering an area twice that of the area of Alaska, were smothered with poisonous black air, creating all kinds of health problems.

Most of Kuwait’s oil wells are operated by underground pressure. There is no need for the kind of surface derricks so common in North America where oil has to be pumped up. Each Kuwaiti well is, therefore, a small inconspicuous structure carrying the usual “Christmas tree” of control pipes and surrounded by a chain-link fence. Where Iraqi damage was minimal, it was possible to stop the fire just by using an ordinary wrench. These opportunities were few. For the most part explosives had been used to destroy the control equipment. A critical part of the controls was the blow out preventer, a valve that adjusts pressure to cope with sudden increases from below. The loss of this control as fires were being extinguished led to sudden ignition in a few places, killing workers. Five men lost their lives in this way.

For the bigger fires a remote-operated crane was used to place a huge wide-diameter pipe over the well. Water and dry chemicals were then poured into the pipe to smother the flames. Both the heat and the noise made it impossible to talk to one another when close to the well so hand signals were used. Large supplies of liquid nitrogen happened to be on hand in Saudi Arabia and this was found to be an excellent chemical for putting out a fire. Its minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit temperature was an ideal cooling agent. Where flames shot out of a well horizontally as well as vertically it was too dangerous to use the wide-diameter pipes. Explosives became the only answer. They quickly put out the flames and, though they caused additional damage, they made it possible to reach the well and rebuild it.

As each team from the various countries coped with one fire after another the effect on the work as a whole was quite dramatic. Visibility gradually opened up. Teams could see better what was going on and were able to tackle those that seemed to be doing most damage. Instead of the original five-year prospect, the end of their work began to look more like one year. The final landscape looked like the moon. Swamps were everywhere, mainly filled with a mixture of oil and mud, and the ground had become saturated into a thick black mass. It would be a long time before any plants took root in that kind of soil. The end came in November of 1991. The last well was put out eight months after the first foray.

The other half of the environmental catastrophe, the oil flooding into the Gulf, was receiving the same intensive attention as the flaming oil wells and over the same period of time. For some places there was nothing that could be done. Salt marshes, mangrove plants, and coral habitats of rare turtles were destroyed. Estimates of seabird deaths reached 30,000. Fishing is a major industry all along the shores of the Gulf. After oil it is the main source of income for thousands of people on both sides of the Gulf. All their fish stocks, including shrimp, barracuda, and mackerel were wiped out.

Forty times the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska was released into the Gulf, adding to an earlier spill. In the 1980s, when Iraq and Iran were at war, Iraqi missiles hit offshore Iranian platforms and spilled two million barrels of oil into the ocean. Now, a decade later, the new flood of oil was being attacked with booms and skimmers, recovering one million barrels of oil from the ocean’s surface. That was a record for any spill and it was urged on by the unique demands of Saudi Arabia’s desalination plants.

Three of these plants are on the Gulf side of the country and they provide 40 percent of the nation’s drinking water. It was the top priority of the government of Saudi Arabia to prevent any oil reaching the intake pipes of these installations. One plant alone produces 220 million gallons of fresh water a day, meeting three-quarters of the water needed by the country’s capital, Riyadh. That same installation is also the source of water for a range of industrial enterprises in and around Riyadh. All the intake sites to these desalination plants were immediately surrounded with several lengths of boom as soon as news of the oil flood reached Riyadh. The booms were arranged in an inverted “V” formation to deflect oil away from the plants and to minimize the risk of oil splashing over the booms.

The final cost of all the cleanups was more than twelve billion dollars, including the value of lost oil, but unlike other spills there was little prospect of collecting these costs from the people responsible. Any national leader who could do what Iraqi’s president did in and around the Gulf Region is beyond all rules of law. Several international conventions exist for dealing with the Kuwaiti catastrophe. They extend from the Hague Convention of 1907, condemning warring nations for environmental destruction, to similar agreements in 1949 and 1977. Economic sanctions against Iraq were the only possible response by the international community in relation to these conventions and agreements, and they were imposed at once. Ten years later they were still in place with little likelihood of being lifted.

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