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Looking Back


Environmental impact

Oil fires and spills leave hazardous legacy

(CNN) -- Saddam Hussein proved to be a man of his word.

After his forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and coalition forces were massing together to force them out, Hussein said if he had to be evicted from Kuwait by force, then Kuwait would be burned.

Just as promised, Iraqi troops set fire to more than 700 oil wells in several Kuwaiti oil fields as they were evacuating the country. Officials from the Kuwait Oil Company indicated that all of Kuwait's oil fields had been damaged or destroyed by the Iraqis.

Before the fires, Iraq was responsible for intentionally releasing some 11 million barrels of oil into the Arabian Gulf from January to May 1991, oiling more than 800 miles of Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian coastline. The amount of oil released was categorized as 20 times larges than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and twice as large as the previous world record oil spill. The cost of cleanup has been estimated at more than $700 million.

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There have been other culprits named in the environmental damage in Kuwait, of course. The abuse of desert land and destruction of plant life has been mentioned as a result of the heavy equipment and movement of troops across the desert.

And at least 80 ships were sunk to the bottom of the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War, many of which carried oil and munitions, at least in part to uphold the U.N.-approved economic sanctions against Iraq.

Now, 10 years after the destruction began, the results of those actions are better known. Those results are neither as apocalyptic as first feared by some scientists, nor completely healed yet. Less than a year after the war was ended, Carl Zimmer wrote in Discover magazine (January 1992), "... [R]esearchers are realizing that in one way or another, everyone was wrong."

The oil released into the Gulf produced devastating consequences on the marine wildlife of the area, including the endangered hawksbill and green turtles. Thousands of cormorants (a type of marine bird) died as a result of exposure to oil or polluted water. Many Karan Island green turtles developed lesions.

But seven years after the war, the coral reefs seemed healthy and shrimp catch levels were restored to numbers seen before the war. And then, another problem: In 1999, some 400 to 500 tons of fish died in the Gulf, a problem traced to a lack of oxygen in the water and the growth of phytoplanktons.

The problems generated by the torching of the oil wells remain more entrenched, since the desert environment lacks the natural cleansing process (i.e., waves and abrasion) of the ocean. Kuwait hired on the world's leading experts in fighting oil well blazes, Red Adair, to supervise the capping of the fiery oil wells, and the job was completed in eight months, officially on November 6, 1991 -- some less than the two to three years initially considered.

The immediate environmental problem caused by the oil well fires, in which some 5 million gallons of oil a day were going up in flames (consuming more oil each day that Kuwait sold before the invasion), was in respiratory problems among its citizens.

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Breathing, one Kuwaiti described, was "like taking the exhaust pipe of a diesel truck in your mouth and breathing that."

Even now, Kuwait is dealing with problems left from unignited oil that has formed about 300 oil lakes and pools that are sinking into the sand, contaminating some 40 million tons of soil.

At the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR), scientists are developing bio-remediated technologies for rehabilitating oil-polluted soils, specifically for freeing the soil from its pollutants. The Soil Bio-Remediated Park in Ahmadi, completed in May 2000, is a park demonstrating that remediated soil can support healthy growth for ornamental landscape and other greenery.

KISR is also working with the Arab Oil Co. in rehabilitating oil lakes, by testing different technologies to treat the most severely polluted oil lake bottoms including the use of bacteria to degrade the oil. In addition to the problem of completing this project under harsh desert conditions, the scientists first had to make way for the Ministry of Defense which cleared the test sites of landmines left by Iraqis.

The surface area of Kuwait covered in oil lakes has decreased steadily, and Landsat Termatic Mapper imagery analyzed in 1995 indicated that a majority of the contaminated areas surrounding the oil lakes were gradually recovering in terms of vegetation growth. At the same time, the continued harsh Kuwaiti weather has transformed some of the oil lakes into semi-solid masses with continued hazard potential. The oil is also sinking deeper into the sand, and its impact on groundwater sources has yet to be thoroughly investigated.

What Kuwait suffered as a result of the oil spills and burning oil wells during the Gulf War is considered notorious from an environmental perspective, leaving a legacy that far outlasted the actual combat. In 1991, the United Nations Security Council resolved that Iraq was liable for all direct environmental damage to Kuwait's terrestrial environment and to its natural resources.

In September 1995, Kuwait filed a $385 million claim against Iraq for environmental damage due to Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. The specific claims made to the United Nations were for damages to health, coastal areas, maritime environment, groundwater resources and desert environment.

This report written by Heather MacLeod McClain

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