Lengthy Oil Cleanup in the Gulf


The Persian Gulf oil spill, once feared bigger than the 4.2 million barrels released by the Ixtoc I blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, is actually much smaller, about 1.5 million to 2 million barrels. That's good news, but the oil that remains is not.

The Gulf of Mexico is open to the Caribbean. Prince William Sound, fouled by millions of gallons of oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez, has huge tides and rapid exchange of waters with the sea. But the Persian Gulf is surrounded by desert, with little inflow from rivers, no glaciers to provide fresh, clear water and little rainfall.

That means the 3,650 animal species, 50 already threatened, face extreme danger from three big oil slicks caused mostly by Iraqi sabotage. Natural cleansing promises little relief. The gulf, 650 miles long and 250 miles wide, narrows to 35 miles at the Strait of Hormuz. At that shallow neck, colder, saltier water remains on the bottom while warmer water rises to the surface. Note that debris from a downed Iranian jetliner in 1988, afloat on the surface, is just now making its way into the Arabian Sea.

There is an urgent need to move ahead with cleanup and containment efforts. The Saudi government, strapped for cash because of the war, has appealed for international help.

There are some positives. High temperatures mean the oil's most volatile, toxic components evaporate quickly. But the gulf contains four different endangered habitats -- coastal marshes and mud flats, coral reefs, sea-grass beds and mangroves -- which could suffer greatly from a thick coating of oil. Experts monitoring a major spill off Panama found that nearly every plant and animal species bounced back after a couple of years, but the coral did not. Its living colony, largely killed off by crude oil, will take many years to recover. Meanwhile, experts say, the sea may crumble much of the centuries-old reef.

Now that the fighting is over, booms and skimmer vessels offer the best hope of containing and removing oil from gulf waters, but more than 100 miles of fouled beaches need something more. The best candidates for that job are the bacteria that already live in the sand. Stimulating this bacteria, rather than using chemicals or bringing in specially engineered microbes, could prompt rapid consumption of the oil hydrocarbons, leaving the beaches clean. That won't get rid of the tar balls that form after a large spill, for they sink to the bottom, imperiling still more marine life. This spill will be around a long while, providing a painful proving ground for ecological cleanup techniques.

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