As the war between Iran and Iraq grinds on, with combat-zone violence preventing repairs of hemorrhaging offshore oil wells, a massive oil slick continues to spread in the Persian Gulf, smothering marine life and smearing shipping lanes with football-size globs of tar.
Paul (Red) Adair, the oil-spill fighter from Houston who has been waiting since March for an Iranian-Iraqi cease-fire that would allow him to cap the war-damaged wells, recently flew over portions of the slick and pronounced it the worst he has ever seen.
"This is the biggest slick in the world, bigger than the Mexico spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979 and much thicker oil," said Adair, who has capped runaway wells in the North Sea, Australia and throughout North America.
A World Wildlife Fund report on environmental damage caused by the spill concluded that "the oil keeps on spilling and the unique life of the gulf keeps on dying."
The report said scientists have found unusual numbers of dead turtles, dolphins, fish, sea snakes and birds on the eastern gulf coastline. More than 50 dead dugongs or sea cows, which are already on the endangered species list, have been found on beaches, the report said. That amounts to "virtually the entire known gulf population" of the nine-foot-long mammals, the report said.
In Saudi Arabia and other countries on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, inflatable protective booms surround most ports, desalination plants and industrial facilities that could be touched by the spill. A Saudi desalination plant at Khubar was briefly closed as a precaution but is now operating.
Fishermen, the backbone of one of the gulf's largest industries in the days before the oil boom, are suffering the most from the slick. According to them, exaggerated fears of contaminated fish have scared off consumers. While government fisheries officials continue to say that all fish tested thus far are free of contamination, the Saudi government banned the selling of gulf fish for two months. Only last week was the ban lifted, but low prices at fish markets reflect continued consumer wariness.
Adair said there was a time when the leaking wells could have been capped in two days. That was shortly after the oil-well ruptures occurred on Iranian offshore platforms in the Nowruz oil field in the northern end of the gulf. The first rupture was caused by a winter storm. In March, Iraqi missiles damaged two other platforms.
Now, Adair said, repairs could take a month or longer. He said he cannot assess the damage until he has a chance to get near the leaking wells.
A continuing stalemate between Iran and Iraq, however, has kept repair experts away from the Nowruz field. Repeated efforts to bring together experts and ministers from both warring nations and the six other Persian Gulf states affected by the slick have ended in failure. Thus far, Iran has offered to cooperate only in a cease-fire that would be confined to the oil field area while Iraq has held out for a general truce that would halt all hostilities.
In the meantime, as 5,000 to 7,000 barrels of oil gush into the gulf every day, oil sources close to Iranian drilling operations say Iraqi helicopters continue to raid other Iranian offshore oil installations. As a precaution, the Iranians reportedly are installing choking devices on some of their offshore oil wells to prevent the kind of leakage that occurred at Nowruz.
The efforts of other gulf countries to control the spill have been so frustrated that the question of how to stop the leaks has been taken off the agenda of regional meetings. Experts are now focusing on a plan to clean up what offshore oil they can.
At a meeting of experts in Bahrain last month, a plan was outlined that would involve coordinated air and sea surveillance and then possibly a joint clean-up effort of that portion of the slick that could be trapped. The whole operation would cost nearly $10 million, said Khalid Fakhro of Bahrain, speaking for the eight-nation Regional Organization for the Protection of Marine Environment. Besides Bahrain, members are Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar.
The plan must be ratified at a higher level by the health ministers of the regional organization, and they have not met since the Bahrain meeting.
There appears to be a lack of resolve to mop up oil offshore while the wells are still leaking, according to observers at the Bahrain meeting. All government efforts seem to focus on containment of the slick at the shore.
Governments are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in elaborate new equipment to fight oil pollution. Qatar has two "cowboy" boats that can lay a boom around a large segment of floating oil, corral it and bring it to shore, where it can be scooped up.
High winds and hot temperatures in the gulf, where the spill is trapped behind the narrow Strait of Hormuz, are causing much of the lighter oil to evaporate, leaving the heaviest hydrocarbons behind. The resulting tar breaks up into globs the size of footballs as it moves farther down the gulf and washes onto gulf shores. These globs are the hardest to clean up. Sailors have also seen what they say are long ribbons of oil in the water.
The World Wildlife Fund report said there is "growing suspicion that tanker operators and other coastal industries have used the Nowruz disaster as a screen behind which to dump petroleum wastes and other toxic byproducts into the sea."
As the oil slick, once a large thin sheen, breaks up into small pieces the overriding concern of gulf environmentalists is for the long-term effects of oil on fish breeding grounds and marine life such as sea turtles and sea cows.