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Air Better, Fires Fewer as Kuwait Wars on Pollution : Environment: Soon, flames at nearly one-fourth of the emirate's 600 stricken oil wells will be extinguished.


MAGWA OIL FIELD, Kuwait — With 200 pounds of TNT and awesome artistry, Coots Matthews bombed the oil fire at Magwa Well No. 40 out of existence Thursday.

The earth quaked under blackened desert sands. Within milliseconds, the 50-foot fountain of flame was transformed into a searing black gusher. Clouds of crude oil chased plumes of black smoke and white steam across an eerie landscape of oily lakes, blazing wells and the burned hulks of Iraqi trucks, bunkers and antiaircraft guns.

Matthews, partner in Boots & Coots Co. of Houston, is one of a number of Americans at the front lines of Kuwait's environmental war. As in all wars, there is a body count. On Thursday, it stood at five men dead, 13 injured and 144 oil wells capped or extinguished.

Soon, nearly one-fourth of Kuwait's 600 damaged oil wells--now hemorrhaging roughly $1,000 per second--will be staunched. Firefighters are tackling the smokiest wells first, as well as those nearest residential areas. Although they say the easiest fires have been put out and warn that the progress is now slowing, their efforts have yielded results.

In Ahmadi, the soot-encrusted town near Kuwait's largest oil fields, air quality has been upgraded--from catastrophic to terrible.

"Today, you can see the sky," said Karal Khalil Hussain, a spokesman for the Kuwait Oil Co. "Before, it was black. At noon, it looked like midnight. We had to turn our headlights on."

International scientists meeting in Bahrain this week concluded that the atmospheric pollution from Kuwait's oil fires may not be as menacing as had been feared--a view shared by William K. Reilly, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, after a tour of the Persian Gulf.

Air-monitoring stations set up in mid-March in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have recorded sharp hourly fluctuations in pollutants and particulates, Reilly said, mainly as a function of a strong seasonal wind called the shamal that has been intermittently blowing the smoke south, away from Kuwait city. But the high concentrations of sulfur dioxide that experts feared most have not materialized.

"We've not found levels that are frequently encountered in many cities in the U.S.," Reilly said.

Likewise, preliminary tests have not detected high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogenic in large quantities; and while particulate levels are elevated, it is not clear how much of the problem is due to smoke and not sand, Reilly said.

"I cannot say that I am aware of any significant health hazards at this time," he said.

Although Reilly praised the pace of firefighting efforts, he stopped a smoky mile short of optimism when asked about the long-term environmental fallout.

"I would be very hesitant to estimate whether there is any lasting damage," he said.

What is clear is that Kuwait's environmental disaster has spread far beyond its borders, fouling huge areas downwind. Soot and oil droplets are splattering windshields in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 350 miles away. Black snow was reported in the Himalayas.

And summer heat, winds and humidity are likely to make things more miserable.

Meteorologists say the northerly shamal winds commonly die down in August while humidity rises and temperatures soar. They fear that air inversions common to the region could trap pollutants close to the ground over population centers where increased respiratory problems have already been reported.

Meanwhile, the prognosis for the Persian Gulf, victim of the world's largest oil spill, may be worse.

"The area obviously is reeling from the weight of this huge spill," said Reilly.

The United States accused Iraq of deliberately causing the oil spill during the war, but Iraq claimed it resulted from allied bombing.

Although intensive efforts spared Saudi Arabia's desalination plants along the Gulf, about 335 miles of beaches are soiled. The oil has also washed ashore in delicate salt marshes, some of which may never recover their environmental balance, Reilly said.

And each day an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 barrels of oil continue to pour into Gulf waters from more than eight locations in Kuwait and Iraq, according to Richard S. Golob, publisher of Golob's Oil Pollution Bulletin of Cambridge, Mass.

"If the 6,000 barrel-per-day figure is correct, as much oil as spilled during the Exxon Valdez (accident in Alaska) will spill into the Gulf in about six weeks," Golob said Thursday.

"This is much more than a local or even a local-regional problem. . . ," said James George, a former Canadian ambassador to Kuwait who has been conducting an environmental tour of the area with a team from Friends of the Earth International. "We've got an international emergency on our hands."

The most recent Saudi estimates put the size of the Gulf spill at roughly 6 million barrels, Reilly said. That is 24 times the amount that spilled into Alaska's Prince William Sound during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

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