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The Spoils of War : A Report on the Eco-Disaster in the Persian Gulf

June 23, 1991|MICHAEL PARRISH | Times staff writer Michael Parrish reports on the business of the environment.

And by the most common measure of spill-fighting success among international experts--the oil recovered--the Saudis may have managed an unprecedented feat.

This would be easier to judge, of course, if anyone was sure how big the spill was. But that is the most slippery statistic in the Persian Gulf. When a tanker hits a rock, ship records give the volume of oil lost. This spill came from many undocumented sources. Estimates have gone from an early high of 11 million barrels--three times more than the world's next-biggest spill--down to 3.5 million barrels and now, officially, back up to 6 million to 8 million barrels. It is again the world's largest. (The Exxon Valdez wasn't in the same league, with a mere 260,000 barrels spilled.)

This is of more than academic interest at the new Eastern Region compound, on the outskirts of Dammam, of the Saudi agency in charge of spill work--the Meteorology and Environmental Protection Administration. Every evening over the din of a powerful air conditioner come the daily reports--from MEPA and its U.S. contractors, Bechtel Corp. and Crowley Maritime Corp.; Saudi Aramco; the Saudi wildlife commission; scientists from Saudi Arabia's King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals; the IMO; the Japanese, Dutch, Australian and European delegations; the U.S. Coast Guard.

Every evening, the recovery teams announce the barrels of oil they took off the water that day. Competition has set in among the different cleanup groups. But MEPA is in a larger race, for international approval. And the amount recovered from this spill looks awfully good.

Under average conditions, 10% to 15% of any spill is considered about the most that can be retrieved. That may seem low, but as much as half of an oil spill evaporates before it can be skimmed. MEPA claims 1.4 million barrels of pure oil--no water mixed in--recovered by early June, and an impressive 18% to 24% recovery.

"They're doing a damned good job of recovery, or a damned good job of lying," said one spill fighter who tends to believe MEPA's numbers.

In fact, no one doubts that a lot of oil has been taken off the water. Saudi geography cupped much of it in bays and inlets as it slipped down the coast. The main spill was finally trapped by Abu Ali Island, in what U.S. advisers came to call the Catcher's Mitt. Oil that didn't hit the coast was vacuumed from onshore into pits--a far easier procedure than open-water skimming. One storage pit alone holds twice the oil released by the Exxon Valdez. Yet this may not mollify critics, within MEPA and without, who have criticized the agency for not having reacted faster to the drifting slick.

Established by royal decree in 1982, MEPA has had a rough infancy. Within a year it faced Saddam's first adventure in environmental warfare--the 1.2-million-barrel flow from Iran's Nowruz oil field, which was shot up by Iraqi missiles and artillery during the Iran-Iraq war. It was the largest spill the Gulf had seen, and MEPA did virtually nothing as oil splashed up on the Saudi shore.

"We didn't have enough infrastructure to deal with an oil spill," admits Dr. Nizar I. Tawfiq, vice president of MEPA and head of the agency's current spill response.

Six years later, MEPA was tested again on a small spill on the Red Sea and managed to do "a good, professional job," says Tawfiq, a tireless, witty and respected university-professor-turned-bureaucrat.

Now Saddam's second big spill has sorely tried the agency again. No national groundswell of emotion rose among the Saudis themselves to fight the spill, but it commanded the quick attention of the rest of the world.

There wasn't even an adequate MEPA office on the Gulf coast. "There was nothing," says G. J. van Hoogen, manager of the Dutch spill-cleanup company TCA, an early arrival among the contractors. "You got a fax machine, you took the fax out of the box, turned the box over and put the fax on top. You might know where you needed a nail, but you didn't have a hammer."

Saudi Arabia called for international help. But it was wartime, and frantic early efforts were hampered by military controls. Strings of plastic boom were put in place only to protect industrial facilities on the shore, not mangroves or salt marshes. After the cease-fire came a period of interagency scuffling. Meanwhile, the major contractors, Bechtel and Crowley Maritime, arrived, worked for a while, then returned to their tents when contracts didn't meet their expectations. It was a month and a half before Crowley, MEPA's contractor for its own recovery plans, signed a contract and began pumping oil off the water. No contractors would discuss the negotiations, but they clearly were concerned about getting paid; the Saudis were said even then to be in financial trouble from the cost of the war.

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