Volume 89, No.3, March-April 2003


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Duke Magazine-Oil Spill-After the Deluge, by Jeffrey Pollack  

Clam digger: biologist Scott Zengel gathers possibly polluted samples for testing
Documenting Life in the Wake of Desert Storm
During the last Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's troops released more than 400 million gallons of crude oil--forty times what was spilled by the Exxon Valdez--from Kuwaiti wells into the Arabian Gulf, coating the Saudi coast and creating the largest oil spill in history. Eleven years later, on the eve of another conflict with Iraq, a team of scientists from South Carolina conducted a massive ecological assessment as part of the international response to the Gulf War spill. From October 2002 to February 2003, I walked the oiled shores of Saudi Arabia as a field biologist on that assessment team.

kay, Grandma, I will. I love you, too." I hang up the payphone in Terminal C of the Houston Airport and round the corner, looking up just in time to avoid a collision with a seven-foot-tall, bronze statue of the first President George Bush. The engraved message at his feet reads, "Winds of Change."

Thirty hours later, I am standing on a sunny street corner in Bahrain. My jet-lagged neurons cannot comprehend why my attire--cargo shorts and a collared shirt--has prevented me from entering the Saudi embassy. Elie reappears.

" Elie, I'm so sorry. I just...."

" Sign this." He hands me a Saudi work visa application. "And don't worry about it. How were you to know? Besides, the embassy changes its policies twice a week. Today they tell me that I must pay in Bahraini dinar instead of Saudi riyal. What kind of embassy does not take its own currency?" His Lebanese accent is strong, but his English is clear and perfect. Elie Malko is the liaison between my employer, Research Planning, Inc. (RPI), and its Saudi partner.

Tidal Cycles in the Arabian Gulf Tidal Cycles
in the
Arabian Gulf
Assessing Damage to Natural Resources Assessing
Damage to
Natural Resources

I meet Elie in the hotel lobby at three o'clock. He tells me that when he returned to the Saudi embassy to pick up the completed paperwork, it took the embassy officials an hour and a half to locate my passport. I definitely shouldn't have worn shorts. As I walk toward the car with my duffel over my shoulder, an atonal drone fills the street. It is the mid-afternoon call to prayer reaching me from a nearby mosque.

The King Fahad Causeway, which links several Bahraini islands to the Saudi mainland, reminds me of the low bridge that connects the islands of the Florida Keys. Twenty-five minutes into the drive, we come to a series of tollbooth-like checkpoints that mark the border between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. We show our passports and collect customs forms. Below the usual questions about valuable goods is a "Religion" blank. I write "Christian," even though I'm not. After a cursory inspection of our vehicle, we are back on the highway and across the border.

Through the Saudi province of Damam, dusty yellow school buses, construction equipment, and piles of metal parts litter the right side of the highway. I see a swastika and a few Arabic words scrawled in black spray paint on a cinderblock wall. A mile down the road from the scrap yard, perfectly conical sand dunes rise inside a double row of barbed wire fence. As we drive beyond them, I realize that they are airplane hangars, camouflaged to blend with the desert sand.

A Brady Bunch-style station wagon eases up alongside in the right lane. The driver stares. I stare back, a cultural faux pas akin to wearing shorts to a government office. The driver is wearing the traditional thobe, a long white shirt, but no guthra, the characteristic red-and-white checked head cover. An egal, the ring that holds the guthra in place, hangs from his rearview mirror. Expressionless, he speeds away.

Pipelines, covered in a thin layer of dirt, weave over the undeveloped stretches of landscape like gophers' burrows. The blue sky around me has a thick, gauzy quality, as if the desert dust is permanently unsettled. The edges of the sun are blurred even though there are no clouds. The increasing frequency of power-line clusters and monster metal towers, their transformer coils dangling like thickly muscled arms, hints of our approach to Al Jubail. This industrial city, located midway down the Gulf coast, is the base of RPI operations. We pull into town just before five o'clock. Two quick lefts bring us to the Gulf Mahmal compound.

The Gulf Mahmal is a three-story, rectangular, stucco structure with barred windows and a single, gated entrance. There is a room with no outer wall to the right of the gate in which a skinny, bearded man in Western clothes sits cross-legged on a woven rug. He is smoking a cigarette and acknowledges us only with his eyes; I will find this "guard" in the same position for the next two months.

A young Indian man is waiting for us in the parking area with the key to my room. Upstairs in Room 2309, I drop my duffel on the white tile floor. I kneel across the cartoon rabbit--a Bugs-Bunny knockoff--pictured on my bedspread to peer though the bars at the orange desert sprawl. The evening call to worship rises from an unseen loudspeaker on the street below. To my right, King Faisel Street is lined with restaurants, parked cars, and trash. To my left, the chalk road continues to an oil refinery that sits on the horizon, shrouded in a cloud of its own emissions. I can just make out an exhaust flame, mimicking the setting sun.

Because our shoreline survey focuses on the intertidal zone--the part of the shore that is exposed at low tide and inundated at high tide--our work schedule is dictated by the tidal cycle. I have arrived in Saudi Arabia during the part of the month when the high tide occurs at midday. Since the field teams are able to survey the coast only during low tide, midday high tides are days of rest, and my first day on the job is my first day off.

he twenty-something generation of Saudis loves country music. It's 5:42 a.m. on my second day in Saudi, and Saad Al Rasheed, the Saudi member of my four-man field team, is drumming the steering wheel in time to a Randy Travis song. Without warning, he swings our SUV to the right, fishtailing onto a dirt road and plastering me against the left side of the backseat. With four other four-wheel-drive vehicles in tow, we race across the sabka toward the morning sun. Sabkas are giant sand flats that stretch between the inland desert and the coastal zone. Walking on the crusty, uneven top layer of the sabka is like walking on stale sugar cookies.

The geologists, three of the four members of each field team, begin at a site by probing for signs of oil contamination farthest from the shore. They lay a transect line--in our case, a twenty-meter rope with knots every couple of meters--perpendicular to the shoreline. The team works seaward along the line, digging holes up to a meter deep at varying intervals. The oil geomorphologist, affectionately called the OG, characterizes the sediment layers in each hole and looks for oiled crab burrows and other hints of oil infiltration. The Global Positioning System technician (G-tech) pinpoints the exact location of the hole. He enters codes that describe what the OG finds in the hole--light, medium, or heavy oil residue and, sometimes, even pockets of liquid oil--into a handheld computer. The data from each hole sampled are automatically linked to a point on a digital map. All told, the teams will run transect lines every 250 meters along the entire gulf coast, a distance of about 800 kilometers.

The sediment technician, one of the geologists, usually a Saudi, collects sediment for chemical analysis. The 30,000-plus sediment samples collected during the project will be analyzed for concentrations of petroleum hydrocarbons--the molecules that constitute oil. Because oils from different sources exhibit unique hydrocarbon "fingerprints," it is possible to identify the source of oil contamination. The results of this chemical analysis will be used as evidence in an international court.

After the Gulf War, the United Nations Security Council froze Saddam Hussein's international assets and used the money to create the United Nations Compensation Commission. The UNCC, charged with processing claims associated with Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, allocated a fraction of the seized funds to the Saudi government's environmental agency to pay for a survey of the oil-soaked Gulf coast. Saddam is fighting a legal battle to get his money back. The Saudi government, eager to collect damages, is racing to document just how much of its coast has been contaminated by the oil released from Kuwaiti wells.

The fourth member of each team is a biologist, like me. I zoom around the habitat between transect lines, doing a timed count of all species of flora and fauna and looking for evidence of oil damage. I am armed with a mini-shovel, walkie-talkie, binoculars, gloves, compass, pocket PC, sunscreen, plenty of food and water, and bags for holding samples of invertebrates. I carry a clipboard with data sheets and wear a digital camera on my belt like a holstered gun. I scrape algae, dig in the dirt, look under rocks, and chase crabs down their burrows. I identify plants and snails and worms. I am an ecological detective. I am a twelve-year-old at the beach.

I learn quickly that the life of a field biologist in a former war zone is not without its hazards. Chewing my peanut butter on pita, reflecting on my first five hours in the field, I notice a frosted piece of glass sticking out of the sand. I am about to dig it up when Scott Zengel, our head biologist, says, "You know, it's probably good policy not to mess with anything that you can't positively identify."

I raise an eyebrow.

" Yeah, there are rumors that the British land-mined certain parts of the coast when they thought the Iraqis were going to invade. Plus, you get ship mines and depth charges washing ashore. You know, that sort of thing."

Access to most of the Saudi coastline is through military or coast-guard installations. As in the U.S., these bases contain some of the wildest areas in the country. The expanses of land that buffer firing ranges and tactical training grounds become de facto ecological preserves. As our caravan speeds across the sabka one morning on the way to a field site, Norm Dodson, Team 3's G-tech, points out cement artillery platforms on the dune ridge ahead and the reinforced walls of the rifle range to our left. Norm is ex-Army Special Forces; a drive through a firing range with him is like a guided tour through a museum. While most of our survey team wears old running shoes or hiking boots into the field, Norm wears combat boots.

At 3:15 in the afternoon, a military jeep stops at our sampling station. Two haggard-looking men dressed in fatigues converse with our Saudi team member, Muhammad Nasser Al-Qhatani, and then drive away. "Time to go," he says. "Time for Navy shooting practice."

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