DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA, JAN. 28 -- The Saudi government is studying proposals to air-drop massive quantities of chemical agents and oil-eating microorganisms as part of an emergency plan to attack the giant oil slick in the northern Persian Gulf, according to Saudi officials and enviromental experts here.
The 30-mile-long mass of crude continued to float southward today, blackening beaches and threatening a key Saudi desalination plant.
Saudi officials were joined by a team of U.S. environmental specialists -- including a team from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers -- who arrived here tonight and plan to inspect the spill by helicopter on Tuesday.
The urgency of the matter was underscored today by U.S. and Saudi officials who reported that the main body of the slick, pushed by strong northern winds, acclerated its movement southward and could reach the coastal city of Jubail sometime during the next week.
Jubail is the site of Saudi Arabia's largest industrial complex as well as a major water desalination plant that helps supply potable water for the northeastern part of the country, including the capital, Riyadh.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Pat Stevens told reporters in Riyadh that the slick was traveling about 15 miles a day, nearly twice as fast as reported over the weekend.
The spill began when Iraq opened the valves at a supertanker oil-loading terminal off the Kuwaiti coast, dumping millions of gallons of crude into the gulf.
Stevens said the bombing of the terminal and other oil facilities in occupied Kuwait by Air Force F-111s on Saturday night had apparently been successful in halting the flow of oil. He added that fires surrounding the slick had diminished.
Officials said they are reviewing several options to combat the spill, including bombarding the slick with massive quantities of chemical dispersants that would break up the oil into small droplets.
Another option is to spray the slick with millions of oil-consuming micro-organisms -- a method that was used to fight an oil spill in Texas last year.
Chemical dispersants, which can be sprayed from airplanes or boats, are considered an effective means of cleaning up spills, according to Richard Golob, an oil spill expert who publishes a newsletter on the subject.
Golob said, however, that while dispersants themselves are "fairly non-toxic," they can cause problems in shallow marine ecosystems such as the Persian Gulf because the droplets sink to the bottom, contaminating sea grasses and marine organisms.
"In near-shore areas, dispersant treatment is not recommended," Golob said.
Environmental damage from these methods might be on a particularly large scale in light of the unprecendented quantities of chemicals or bacteria that would have to be used in this case, some experts said.
"These are good for spills with a small volume, but not here with something of this size," said Abdullah Dabbagh, director of the research institute of King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, who is an adviser to the government on the issue.
But other experts have argued that drastic steps are needed if the government is to have any hope of avoiding potentially catastrophic damage to the region's marine life.
Saudi officials have contended repeatedly in recent days that they believe they can adequately protect their desalination plants in Jubail -- now within 65 miles of the southern edge of the slick -- and other towns through the use of protective booms and skimmers.
But even if those efforts are successful, they would do little to protect the fragile marine life now being smothered by the slick.
A group of reporters escorted by the Saudi military to the coastal village of Khafji, near the Kuwaiti border, today found a foul-smelling beach with dead seabirds and shrimp covered in black oil.
Dead cormorants dotted the beaches, and two-inch-long Persian Gulf prawns -- one of the region's delicacies -- were stuck to the sea walls, dead and spotted with oil.
Khafji, a small Saudi beach town, was abandoned by most of its 45,000 inhabitants when the war started almost two weeks ago.
The Ministry of Information refused repeated requests to address the possibility that the oil slick in Khafji came from a so-called second spill, caused by an artillery shell hitting a fuel tank near the border.
The ministry also rejected reporters' requests to visit a desalination plant 1 1/2 miles from the border with Kuwait and refused to allow photographers to take pictures of it.
Despite the obvious catastrophe -- the oil has changed the northern gulf waters from their normal turquoise to a lead-gray -- the water has not become the gooey black soup that some had feared.
Staff writers Guy Gugliotta in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and John Lancaster in Washington contributed to this report.