Persian Gulf Cleanup Has Only Just Begun

War complicates international efforts to contain and assess damage of 11-million-barrel spill in `fragile' waters

THE small bird struggles weakly against its rescuer's grip, but exhaustion robs its pecks of any force. The grebe's feathers are spiky with tar, its normally round red eyes drawn to a slit by dehydration. An early victim of the Persian Gulf oil spill, the bird symbolizes the environmental challenge. In a hastily converted workers' canteen here - now smelling strongly of oil and old fish - wildlife activists from many countries have set up a rescue center to clean fouled sea birds.

``We've got a dirty area, a clean area, and a lovely fish kitchen. We're ready to roll,'' British expert Tim Thomas told a group of volunteers last week as they donned overalls and surgeons' rubber gloves to begin the painstaking work of washing birds off - feather by feather - with detergent and warm water.

They are dealing, environmentalists say, with only the very first effects of what is almost certainly the largest oil spill in history. The slick that the Iraqis released from a Kuwaiti pumping station is estimated to contain 11 million barrels (462 million gallons). The Exxon Valdez, by comparison, leaked 250,000 barrels.

Nor could it have happened in a worse place. Almost landlocked by the narrow Straits of Hormuz, the Gulf takes more than three years to flush itself out. Its waters are shallow - averaging only 100 feet - and unusually salty.

``This is a very fragile, stressed area of water,'' explains Mohammed Bakr Amin, head of the Water Resources and Environment Research Department at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Mineral Resources in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, on the Gulf coast.

``Everything living in the Gulf is already on the threshold. You can imagine the impact of another source of pollution,'' he adds.

``It is obvious that the world is witnessing an ecological disaster of an unprecedented scale,'' warns a report from the Saudi National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development. Coral reefs, mangrove thickets, and beds of seagrass - the cradle of life for fish and animals throughout the Gulf - could end up blanketed by a deadly coat of oil.

That would be fatal not only to the grebes and cormorants currently in care here, but also to the fish and shrimp that provide a living for fishermen the length of the Gulf coast, to turtles, dolphins, and dugongs - an endangered species of sea cow.

Although the wildlife agency report predicts a ``catastrophic die-off'' for such species, environmentalists say it is still much too early to predict the full extent of the devastation.

Such an assessment is complicated and time consuming in the best of circumstances, and the war now raging in the Gulf makes it practically impossible.

``Nobody has ever contemplated such an amount [of oil] and you cannot even survey it properly because you need to go far up north,'' complains Prince Abdullah bin Faisal, head of the royal commission that built the industrial town of Al Jubail. ``And if our environmentalists went up there they would be shot at from the south of Kuwait.''

Divers laying booms near the border say they did come under fire from Iraqi guns last week.

The Saudi government's reaction, when the spill began to threaten the eastern coastline at the end of January, was to protect the vital industrial installations that draw water from the Gulf.

Protective booms were stretched first across the water intakes of desalination plants that provide drinking water to this desert nation and across the entrance to electricity generating plants. Both would be crippled if they were fouled by oil, threatening strategically critical water and power shortages in time of war.

Whether the booms will be fully effective remains to be seen, but once they were in place, the authorities turned their attention to protecting the environmentally sensitive areas of the coastline.

In doing so, they have counted on help from a wide range of foreign countries. The United States has sent a team of oil-spill experts from the Coast Guard and other agencies to assist the Saudi Environmental Administration. A Norwegian skimmer boat is operating, and Norwegians are laying booms to deflect the oil slick as it moves towards beaches. The Japanese have sent six plane-loads of booms, a Soviet skimmer boat is on its way to implement plans drawn up by Dutch experts, and British birders are playing a key role at the animal rescue center in Jubail.

The booms are being laid in an effort to keep the slick away from the most critical areas for Gulf wildlife. These include mangrove thickets, whose tangle of roots provides a natural breakwater and an ideal nursery for many kinds of deep-water fish. The beds of seagrass that sway above the sandy bottom sustain armies of crustaceans, turtles, and dugongs.

Dugongs, a kind of sea cow, are some of the world's gentlest and most helpless animals. Slow moving, and much prized for its meat, the dugong is related to the manatee found off the coast of Florida and feeds exclusively on seagrass.

The coral reefs that ring some of the islands off the Saudi shore are feeding grounds for countless species of fish, and many of the beaches they protect are nesting grounds for green turtle and their larger cousins, the hawksbills.

The coastal mud flats and islands, meanwhile, are important as breeding grounds for birds such as the endangered Socotra cormorant, as a winter refuge for flamingoes, and as a `refueling stop' for millions of migrating birds every year.

Telling the ships where to lay their booms is a team of scientists at King Fahd University. Using a computer program designed to track mines laid in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war, the modeling team feeds in data on wind speed and direction, currents, and other factors to predict which beaches the slick will threaten and when.

It is harder, though, to predict how the weather will affect the slick and change its nature. The heat of the sun will evaporate more volatile elements to leave a more viscous sludge behind, the wind will break the slick into smaller patches, and wave action will eventually grind them into tarballs.

HOW long all this might take, however, is anybody's guess. At issue is whether to use chemical dispersants to speed up the process, to help the ocean digest the oil.

Dr. Bakr Amin has his doubts. ``If we were dealing with a small area perhaps we could use dispersants, but with this slick we'd have to use huge amounts that would affect the marine life,'' he says. ``All dispersants I know of have harmful collateral effects.''

The chances of actually cleaning up much of the oil seem slim, although boats are already at work, sucking up oily water for later disposal onshore. US Coast Guard Capt. Don Jensen, head of the interagency US team working with the Saudis, pointed out recently that ``in the best of situations the best we've ever done is to recover 10 to 15 per cent'' of a spill.

Relying on mechanical protections such as booms to keep the bulk of the oil off the beaches is about all even the most expert expert can do at this stage.

And even if boomswork, the oil is not going to go away. Either as a sheen on the surface, or in layers on the seabed, or as floating tarballs, the largest oil slick in history is likely to have ecological aftereffects every bit as dramatic as the political aftereffects of the Gulf war.

As Prince Abdullah bin Faisal warns, ``we have a battle in front of us for a long time to come.''

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