An oil slick estimated at more than 100,000 barrels has been stirred up in the Persian Gulf by the war between Iran and Iraq, threatening the coastlines of several gulf states.
Most of the moving sludge comes from offshore Iranian wells that were damaged in an Iraqi attack on March 2. Because the combatants cannot agree on a cease-fire in the area, attempts by other governments and oil companies to cap the wells and clean up the mess have been blocked.
The oil slick is growing, and, because of travel restrictions imposed by the warring governments, neighboring countries have been unable even to pinpoint the slick's present position and chart its movement.
"The oil has yet to hit land, but it is not going to go around looking for a home forever," said one worried gulf environmentalist. Environmentalists warn that unless the flow is turned off soon, the spill could be one of the largest the area has ever faced.
The spill threatens water supplies throughout the region, according to an oil pollution monitoring service report quoted by The Associated Press. The Oil Spill Intelligence Report, produced by the Center for Short-Lived Phenomena, noted that most Persian Gulf nations get much of their drinking water by desalinating the gulf water, which could be made undrinkable by oil pollution.
Richard Golub, editor of the report, said Iraq has warned that any efforts to seal off the Iranian wells would be subject to Iraqi military attack, according to the AP.
The first leaks--about 1,000 barrels a day--started early last month when a pipe ruptured in Iran's Nowruz field south of Khark Island. An American team was poised to enter the area and cap the well two weeks ago when Iraq attacked the field, setting three oil platforms on fire and causing leakages of 1,500 to 3,000 barrels a day from wells there.
Thirty-four people, mostly Iranians working on the platforms, were killed, according to oil company sources. There are conflicting reports on how the raid was carried out, with some radio reports saying Iraq used warships and oil company sources saying it used helicopters.
The threatened neighboring states can do little to deal with the spill until Iraq and Iran grant safe passage to ships going into the area.
"The sensible thing would be to go up now and clean it up before it impacts one of the states in the area," said one national oil company environmentalist, "but no one is going to risk it without assurances from Iraq and Iran."
Gulf states had hoped such an agreement could be worked out during a meeting scheduled for March 12 of the Regional Organization for the Protection of Marine Environment, of which Iran and Iraq are members. But neither showed up, and the meeting was postponed. A spokesman for the organization said no new date has been set.
Since they cannot get access to the Nowruz field, oil companies are unable to determine the size of the oil spill and the speed and direction in which it is moving. They think it has drifted south to the Iranian Ferdoon field, which borders Saudi Arabia's Marjan field.
Helicopters of the Arabian-American Oil Co. have made surveillance runs to the border of the two fields but have not spotted the slick, an Aramco spokesman said.
"The Iranians are supplying us with no information whatsoever," one gulf environmentalist complained.