In war's wake, spewing oil blackens sky, Persian Gulf


KUWAIT CITY -- There are days when daylight never comes. There are afternoons so dark that cars drive with headlights on, so dark that it is nearly impossible to snap a photograph outside.

The mist of airborne oil turns the robes of Kuwaitis from white to gray. The children of Bedouin shepherds wear surgical masks as they mind flocks of blackened sheep grazing on blackened grass. People cough up a dark mucus from polluted lungs.

And when it rains, swimming pools turn black.

The environmental upheaval caused by the Persian Gulf war is of such proportion and complexity that the word "disaster" seems to trivialize it. The damage is everywhere: in air, water, earth and fire.

Three months after Kuwait's liberation, this wicked brew of smoke, soot and sand continues to cook from hundreds of oil wells set ablaze by the fleeing army of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Up to 6 million barrels of incinerated oil billows over the desert every day, dropping acid rain across the region and spreading soot as far as the snow-covered Himalayas and the beaches of Hawaii.

In the waters of the Persian Gulf, crews have mopped up far more oil than the Exxon Valdez spilled off Alaska two years ago. The Iraqis spilled five times that amount into the gulf, and oil still seems to be leaking from a tanker in southern Iraq and from damaged terminals in Kuwait.

The brunt of the spill, estimated to range from 4 million to 9 million barrels, has fallen on the inlets and islands along the northern Saudi coast.

The oil has touched up to 600 miles of Saudi coastline. Some places are only spotted; other beaches are coated with a thin black crust; others, especially some ecologically vital marshes, are paved with a thick tar.

"The worst of what's out there is over, but the damage that's occurred is just staggering," said Kerry Plowright, executive director of Earthtrust-New Zealand, who has been volunteering in the gulf. "The area affected is like a womb or a nursery for hundreds of species. You've knocked out an enormous chunk of the food chain. . . . They'll take bloody years to recover."

The oil left in the water is breaking down, turning into a thick sludge that sinks to the gulf's bottom. Onshore, in spots where the oil is thick, it is mixing with sand and stone and baking into patches of asphalt in the summer heat.

"It's just a ribbon of death all along the beach," said John Grainger, a scientist with the Saudi National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development.

The massacre of birds is already evident. Based on surveys of the coastline, experts estimate that as many as 30,000 perished, many of them migrants just passing through on the way from Africa to Europe, Iran or the Soviet Union. Especially hard hit are the diving birds, such as grebes and cormorants, which spend much of their time in the water. The toll also includes gulls and wading birds, such as herons and sandpipers.

The summer heat should be blistering the desert here every day. But temperatures are running as much as 15 degrees below normal in Kuwait and about 5 to 10 degrees cooler in eastern Saudi Arabia.

Desert plants with leaves and roots suited to blinding light and parching heat are now confronted with cooler, moister, soot-covered days.

"It's freaking them out completely," said Richard Thorpe, field director for Earthtrust.

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