Oil spill spreading in gulf Kuwaiti official predicts long-term ecological damage WAR IN THE GULF


DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- The unprecedented oil spill in th Persian Gulf will continue to cause severe environmental damage long after the U.S.-led war against Iraq has ended, a senior member of the exiled Kuwaiti government said yesterday.

"What you see is a picture of great disaster as far as pollution goes, because the gulf is a practically closed sea," said Abdulrahman A. Al-Awadi, the Kuwaiti state minister for Cabinet affairs.

The contamination, which is moving steadily south well into the waters off Saudi Arabia, not only threatens the lives of dolphins and a wide variety of fish and wildlife, but will upset the region's entire ecological system, he said.

Speaking about the threat of environmental damage, Mr. Al-Awadi said: "We think it's going to last for some time. . . . We are definitely now facing one of those unusual acts of Saddam [Hussein] which we think is going to really have, when the war is finished, a lasting effect on marine life."

[An Associated Press correspondent in Khafji, the Saudi town most directly affected by the oil, reported that oil-soaked birds were struggling in from the gulf to die on the beach.

[Deep pools of black goo collected along the 10-mile strip of beach between the Kuwaiti border post and Khafji, the AP said.

[Beside a deserted children's park on the beach, a lifeless cormorant lay on a rock, its neck dangling into a black tide pool. Another bird too filthy to identity stood rooted in the muck.

[In Khafji, the outer rim of the spill washed up at the Beach Hotel, which, like the rest of the once-thriving border city, has been abandoned since the war began. Waves still broke white, but they were tinged in black.

[Above the polluted waters, a gray haze filtered the sun, smoke from oil storage tanks set afire by Iraqi troops in Kuwait, the AP said.]

Kuwaiti authorities in Saudi Arabia said the spill began three days ago. They estimated the daily amount pouring into the gulf at between 400,000 and 800,000 gallons.

Mr. Al-Awadi said the oil continued to flow south, although not all sections of the Saudi coastline were immediately threatened yesterdaybecause of unusually strong winds from the east that were dispersing some of the oil away from the shore.

Immediately threatened by the oil are as many as 10 facilities along the western gulf coast that Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates rely on to process salt water into drinking water, Mr. Al-Awadi said.

But the Kuwaiti official said that virtually all the plants had planned long ago for the possibility of a major spill and had installed equipment to block oil from entering the desalination systems. Other options would be to disperse the oil or skim it from the surface, he said.

But the three plants in Kuwait alone, each costing about $1 billion to construct, will have to be shut down, if the Iraqis haven't done so already, Mr. Al-Awadi said.

And removing the oil will not solve all the environmental problems, he said. Because of the depth of oil in the water, much of it is likely to sink to the bottom as "tar balls" that would upset the gulf ecosystems for years to come, he said.

Mr. Al-Awadi asserted that the cleanup could be handled in an area "outside the war zone," presumably off the Saudi coast.

He declined to discuss how the oil flow should be stopped, saying that was a matter for the military to decide.

He warned against bombing the storage areas that feed oil to the Sea Island terminal, where the oil is entering the water.

Such a move would render the facilities in the area useless and might release even more oil into the gulf, Mr. Al-Awadi said.

U.S. and allied military officials said they were convinced that Iraq was deliberately discharging the oil because only a pump could put out the sheer volume entering the Persian Gulf.

Capt. Niall Irving of the British Royal Air Force said the allies were consulting with a number of "world experts . . . to figure out how to deal with this and prevent disaster."

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