The Kuwait Cleanup: Who's In Charge Here?

Wanted: one general. Desired skills: ability to coordinate air, land, and sea campaign in the Persian Gulf. Mission: cleaning up after Operation Desert Storm.

Even as waves of thick black crude ride up on ecologically vital Persian Gulf salt marshes and acrid fumes from 500 fires boil into desert skies, it is apparent that the worst fears of a postwar worldwide environmental catastrophe haven't been realized. The oil slick, put at 11 million barrels in the heat of war, is closer to 4 million. And the oil-well smoke some experts said would reach the upper atmosphere and produce a global nuclear winter is so far sticking close to Mother Earth.

But just as the concern seems to have subsided, so has the momentum for helping the region recover from what may be the worst man-made environmental disaster in history. The gulf cleanup is suffering from disarray, penny-pinching, and infighting. Black rain is already falling 1,000 miles east of Kuwait in Pakistan, and summer heat threatens to loft smoke higher into the atmosphere--where it can be carried further around the globe. So delay raises the odds of widespread crop failures, devastated fisheries and ecosystems, and respiratory illness and lung cancer in thousands of people breathing oil-fouled air.

Some environmentalists are saying that the U. S. and its allies have turned their backs on the cleanup. They charge that the problem has been left to the cash-strapped and beleaguered governments of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who, along with a few environmental groups, are attacking the problems piecemeal instead of with a comprehensive plan. "The coalition members bear responsibility for not only waging and winning the war but also for dealing with the war's environmental aftermath," says Richard S. Golob, publisher of Golob's Oil Pollution Bulletin in Cambridge, Mass. "What we need really is a General Schwarzkopf who can lead the war to save the gulf environment."

Not likely. Some dozen U. S. agencies are helping assess the environmental toll--and are even trying to mobilize the U. N. to pitch in. But a survey of the major agencies involved shows that after spending billions to wage the war, the U. S. has put less than $5 million into this effort--and virtually nothing into environmental restoration. "The U. S. government isn't involved in the cleanup," says an Environmental Protection Agency spokesman. "That's

being run by the Kuwaitis and the Saudis."

MILES OF MINES. Regardless of who should be responsible, the lack of overall coordination may prove disastrous. Left untouched are miles of oil-filled beachside trenches that the Iraqis planned to ignite to foil amphibious assaults. These threaten to flow into the sea in the high tides of summer. A lethal array of Iraqi land and sea mines and unexploded cluster bombs dropped by coalition forces hinder cleanup efforts. "The mines go for miles and miles," says Jassim al Hassan, head of the Kuwait Environmental Action Team, a group of concerned Kuwaiti academics. In late April, a London company, Royal Ordnance PLC, was hired to remove some mines. But much work has yet to be awarded--and there is little sign the process is being speeded up.

Each delay is a serious blow. For nearly two months after the war, some 3,000 barrels of oil a day continued to leak into the gulf from damaged tankers, tank farms, and pipelines. That has nearly been stopped. But oil gushing from ravaged wells and entering Kuwait's oil-field drainage system is dumping 1,000 barrels a day into the gulf, says Golob. Some spewing oil has pooled into lakes, which could catch fire or become traps for birds. The largest, near the giant Burgan oil field in southern Kuwait, is a half-mile long, a quarter-mile wide, and 25 feet deep in some spots. If the oil is an average 5 feet deep, notes Golob, the lake holds 100 million gallons--nine times the volume of the Exxon Valdez spill.

PARALYSIS. It's a similar story with the fires. About 100 of the 591 wells on fire or spouting oil at war's end have been capped. But the Kuwaiti government at first failed to commit money for needed equipment. "If they had ordered it, 300 fires would be out by now," says one Kuwait Petroleum Corp. official. More delays came as the Kuwaitis sought to renegotiate done deals, adds T. B. O'Brien, president of O'Brien Goins Simpson Inc., a Midland (Tex.) consultant coordinating the oil-fire fighting. "Fires were costing millions of dollars a day, and you have this guy over here trying to save a total of $10,000," he says.

The inertia extends to Saudi Arabia. "It was astonishing and a bit sad," says John Huisman, who heads an oil-slick combat team from the Dutch Transport & Public Works Ministry. He went to Saudi Arabia in February and found logistical problems and arguments that sidelined cleanup companies. Some 25,000 birds, mostly grebes and cormorants, have died in the spill. It makes sense to clean beaches carefully to avoid causing extra damage. But critics note that the drive to mop up still pales alongside the Valdez effort (table).

With billions of dollars needed to pay war costs, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have worries besides the environment. But some companies blame much of the cleanup's slow pace on a confusing system in which a local agent is needed to act as a middleman between them and host governments. Conversely, many companies are out to make a fast buck, says Huisman. So who can blame a country for taking its time to sort through proposals?

Some see more sinister reasons behind the coalition's environmental inaction, however. "I think they feared that any discussion of the seriousness of the environmental impacts would cast doubts on the success of what the war accomplished," says Brent Blackwelder, vice-president for policy of the environmental group Friends of the Earth. Another group, Honolulu-based Earthtrust, argues that in Kuwait, where fewer than 150,000 of last year's

580,000 citizens now reside, the government has downplayed environmental problems for fear that people needed to help rebuild the country might stay away.

Now, with the Kuwaitis starting on May 12 to fly in citizens at a rate of 15,000 a week, the repatriation drive may carry a stiff cost. While scientists have never studied pollution on this scale, prolonged exposure to such heavy and persistent contamination is certain to aggravate respiratory ailments -- especially in older people and children. Says Richard D. Small, director of thermal sciences for West Los Angeles think tank Pacific Sierra Research Corp.: "You would expect increased attacks of asthma, emphysema, and ultimately, an increased incidence of lung cancers."

In January, Small's company completed a study for the Defense Dept. that concluded that smoke from oil-well fires would never rise high enough to affect global climate. Still, says Small, "It's an environmental disaster for that region."

Some think that picture is too optimistic. In the summer heat, the smoke plume could rise higher than the current 12,000-foot peaks and spread far enough to depress temperatures and reduce crop yields worldwide, argues Blackwelder. Many experts call this view exaggerated. Still, "there is a possibility there'll be enough self-lofting of the soot to a high enough level in the atmosphere to have a global effect," says John Birks, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Colorado. In April, particulates presumed to be from the fires were detected at a monitoring station in Hawaii.

TOO LATE. Surprisingly, the gulf region still lacks a comprehensive air-quality evaluation program. A joint National Science Foundation-Defense Dept. team began arriving in Bahrain on May 10 to launch a month-long study of the fires' effects on regional weather. One area of focus: whether the fires might change air or surface temperatures and disrupt the Indian monsoon, whose rains start in mid-May and provide the lifeblood of the Indian subcontinent. Sponsors say the study didn't suffer from postwar confusion. But it, too, may prove an opportunity lost. "If you really wanted to get a complete picture of what was happening with the monsoon, you should have been there a couple of weeks earlier," says Richard S. Greenfield, head of the NSF's lower atmospheric research section.

Such instances are fueling calls for someone to take charge. The U. S., mired in Kurdish refugee problems in northern Iraq and eager to get troops home, has shown little desire to prolong its role as coalition leader--and some see that as only fitting. "We didn't agree to go in and wipe the nose of the Kuwaitis," says Ken Miller of OPEC Listener, an electronic oil-analysis service charting the gulf cleanup.

But others disagree. "We had the air war and the ground war, and those were both won. Now, we have the 'eco-war,' and we're losing that," says Michael Bailey, Earthtrust's program director. "What is needed is the same kind of military commitment to cleaning up as was made to fight the war." After all, he notes, the war had two principal aims: to secure oil fields and to return to Kuwaitis something resembling the country they had. Anyone journeying to a dark corner of the earth called Kuwait City knows that neither goal has yet been achieved.


OIL SLICK At least $60 million and roughly 500 workers are being provided, mostly by Saudi Arabia, to clean up war-related spills that total 170 million gallons so far. This contrasts with about $2 billion and 11,000 workers used to clean up the 11 million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill in 1989

LEAKS An additional 42,000 gallons of oil a day are leaking into the gulf as oil spewing from damaged wells reaches Kuwait's oil-field drainage system. One lake of oil has formed in southern Kuwait that may contain nine times the oil spilled from the Valdez. Land and sea mines and unexploded cluster bombs are hindering efforts to clean up

FIRES After initial delays, firefighters are now dousing three wells a day. But some 500 wells are still burning or spouting oil. Kuwaiti oil officials say 200 more fires would be out if their own government had paid for equipment they ordered. The fires won't be out for at least another year

AIR POLLUTION Soot particles presumed to have originated in Kuwait have reached Hawaii. In an Apr. 3 report, the EPA said that "warnings, advisories, and precautions are clearly warranted" for gulf-area residents with respiratory problems. Still, air-monitoring equipment provided by the U.S. was stolen after it arrived in Kuwait, so assessment efforts have been retarded DATA: BW; GOLOB'S OIL POLLUTION BULLETIN ILLUSTRATIONS BY ALBERTO MENA/BW