DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- The giant oil slick moving south in the Persian Gulf along the Saudi coast poses a growing threat to the kingdom's desalination plants despite international efforts to contain the spill, cleanup experts said yesterday.
Saudi and U.S. officials said they were powerless to prevent at least some of the oil from washing ashore and warned that preventive measures may fail at the complexes that purify water from the gulf into drinking water for civilians and the military.
Coast Guard Capt. Donald Jensen, head of a seven-member team of U.S. experts sent by the White House, said the risk of oil's working its way past a series of hurriedly assembled deflection devices was "high." His conclusion contrasted sharply with optimistic assessments given earlier by Saudi officials.
"Those plants are the top-priority assets to protect," Captain Jensen said. "Obviously there's a high risk." Oil making its way into the plants "is a possibility at this point because of the way the oil is likely to go."
Huge quantities of oil began pouring into the gulf Jan. 19 when, according to U.S. military commanders, Iraqi forces deliberately opened valves at storage facilities at Kuwait's offshore tanker station and also emptied five tankers there.
The result is what experts say is history's largest spill, covering more than 350 square miles.
Nizar Tawfiq, vice president of Saudi Arabia's environmental agency, estimated the amount of oil to be 7 million barrels.
Early efforts to contain it have been seriously hampered by the war. More than 90 percent of the spill remains north of Saudi Arabia's border and thus off-limits to the specialists trying to devise a cleanup plan.
Another limitation is the classified nature of aerial photographs taken by the military. Captain Jensen said his team has so far been denied access to the most detailed photographs that might show the spill in its entirety.
As a result, Captain Jensen and others have yet to decide what strategies to use to contain the oil and where along the Saudi coast to begin. "We know you have to contain the oil," he said. "You have to choose a method."
Only a small number of choices exist, and some may have been precluded by the amount of time that has passed since the spill began. Experts say that burning off the oil is an option only at the source of the spill, while Captain Jensen ruled out any prospect of crews' physically removing significant quantities.
"There's no way you can hope to recover large quantities of a spill like this," he said. "In the best of situations, the best we've ever done is 10 [percent] to 15 percent. I'm not saying we will do 15 percent here. I'm not saying we'll even try to remove the oil."
Efforts have apparently been successful to prevent still more oil from spilling into the gulf. On Saturday, a U.S. aircraft dropped laser-guided bombs on sections of the terminal controlling oil in miles of pipelines and set the oil ablaze. Because the fire has been gradually lessening, U.S. officials judge that the leak has been stopped.
Oil also leaked from refineries around the northern Saudi Arabian town of Khafji and was the first oil to come ashore. But officials say the two slicks have merged into one, with the bulk of it remaining one to five miles offshore.
Yesterday the United States confirmed reports of another new major spill, coming from an offshore platform at Mina al-Baqr off the Iraqi coast, and said the allies would bomb that installation, too, "if it gets out of control."