Gulf war pollution 'not as bad as feared'

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The Independent Online
SADDAM HUSSEIN'S two great environmental outrages during the Gulf war may have done far less damage than was once feared. Levels of one important pollutant associated with oil fires are no higher on the Gulf sea-bed than in several British estuaries, according to research published in today's issue of the science journal Nature.

Blazing wellheads under skies black with smoke and sea birds dying in vast oil slicks were among the most haunting images of last year's conflict. Up to eight million barrels of oil - one million tonnes - were released into the sea at the northern end of the Gulf and more than 60 million tonnes erupted from Kuwait's sabotaged wells, either burning or forming lakes and rivers of crude.

During three visits between June and October last year - after the ceasefire and while the fires were being extinguished - six scientists from the Marine Environment Laboratory in Monaco quantified the level of oil contamination in samples of fish, shellfish and sea-bed mud. Their survey stretched from Kuwait, at the Gulf's north-eastern end, to Oman, outside its southern entrance.

They found that shellfish off the island of Bahrain had lower levels of oil contaminants after the war than had been present in surveys they carried out before the conflict.

The scientists suggest that this is because much of the normal oil pollution occurring in the waterway was halted during the seven months between Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the ceasefire because tankers were no longer loading up with crude from Iraq and Kuwait.

It is estimated that, on average, two million barrels of oil are spilt into the Gulf each year as a result of oil production and transport; there was heavy pollution before the conflict.

The scientists conclude that severe pollution was confined largely to 250 miles of Saudi Arabian coastline nearest to Kuwait, and that most of the oil in the spills had evaporated or had been digested by microbes. The highest levels were found in the sea-bed sediments; mud 60 miles from Kuwait was 100 times as contaminated as that 250 miles away. Shellfish had lower levels and fish lower still - but both were found to be much more contaminated near Kuwait, where the spills originated.

The scientists also measured levels of cancer-causing chemicals called PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) produced by burning oil and other types of combustion. They found that levels in the sea-bed were about the same as those found in estuaries in the United States and Britain, and lower than in the southern Baltic.

Greenpeace said it would be wrong to conclude that the Gulf had escaped a major environmental catastrophe. It sent one of its ships, the MV Greenpeace, on a two-month research voyage in the Gulf last autumn.

Paul Horsman, a toxics campaigner, pointed to a recent report from Saudi Arabia showing that catches of shrimp, the Gulf's most important fishery, had slumped. 'I'd accept that the most severe damage was confined to the northern end,' he said. 'The oil spill and the burning wells will have long-term implications, and we still feel there is an urgent need for more international help towards a clean-up and long-term research on the impacts.'