Kuwait struggles against poisoned skies

European Stars and Stripes, Darmstadt, Germany

AHMADI, KUWAIT, is ground zero in the environmental holocaust wrought by the Iraqi army.

The once green and lively town lies blackened and dormant, paralyzed by the noxious seige of 350 oil fires. An ugly, black vapor hangs over the town, encrusting each tree, car and building. A thin layer of tar carpets the ground.

The few adults still living in Ahmadi seldom venture outside. When they do, it is with cotton surgical masks on their faces — although the thin material is useless against he ultra-fine smoke particles. Birds, blinded and soiled by the airborne oil and smoke, flounder on the ground, unable to fly. Children play in the streets, their bare feet caked with soot, while an oil well burns unchecked a few hundred yards away.

Before the war, Ahmadi often was cited as the pride of Kuwait. The oil company town of 25,000 people was known for its trees, neatly-tended lawns and duplex homes. Now, four-fifths of the residents have fled, and the city is marked not by its greenery, but by its black, odoriferous skies.

It is the smoke that is killing Nadia Nazzal, and she knows it. The 53-year-old Palestinian woman has spent two of the last four months in a hospital near her Ahmadi home suffering from severe chest pains and shortage of breath. Asthma plagued her as a child, but she had been free of the symptoms for 15 years. She has tried several times to return home, but each time the smoke has driven her away within a few days. Her doctors warn that Ahmadi probably will kill her.

Her husband, Anwar, wants to take her and their 12-year-old daughter out of Kuwait. But the Kuwait Oil Co. has not rehired him after the war, a common predicament for Palestinians with ties to Jordan. He doesn’t have the money to take his family to safety.

“I watch my wife die. I watch my daughter wash the oil from her hair, and I can do nothing about it,” Anwar said. “It is hard for a man to live with this.”

No one seems certain when Saddam’s army blasted its first well. The allied military reported the first fire in January. Most sources agree that the real rampage began on Feb. 15 when it became clear that the Iraqis would be driven from Kuwait. For two months the fires raged unchecked, releasing vast amounts of toxic soot and gas into the atmosphere.

Initially, scientists predicted catostrophic environmental damage to the Middle East and warned that the effects of the fires would be felt around the world, perhaps triggering a version of “nuclear winter.” Now, many scientists are backing off the forecasts of global doom, saying recent research shows that the damage will be confined to the Middle East.

Others, however, warn that it’s too soon to accurately assess the implications.

“This catastrophe is not over yet,” said Dr. Hassan Nasrallah, an air pollution climatologist with the Kuwait Environmental Action Team, a volunteer advisory group to the Kuwait government. “No one can say if the damage will be worse or better. No one knows because this has never before happened.”

Smoke from the burning wells carries cancer-causing hydrocarbons as well as noxious gases, some of which are lethal. The U.N. World Meteorological Organization estimates that the fires emit up to 2 million tons of carbon dioxide daily and nearly 5,000 tons of black soot.

It may be years before the health impacts will be known.

At first, scientists feared that the smoke would rise into the stratosphere — that area of fast-moving air about seven miles above the earth — where it could persist for months, spread around the globe, block out sunlight and eventually return to earth in the form of acid rain.

The nuclear winter theory says that soot and dust thrown into the stratosphere by a nuclear war would absorb the sun’s rays, cool the planet and cause a dramatic drop in temperatures that could destroy crops, leading to starvation.

The possibility that the massive oil fires in Kuwait could lead to a similar situation is unlikely, according to scientists from the U.S. National Science Foundation, which last week completed an analysis of the smoke cloud. Soot and fumes from the blazes are rising only 12,000 to 15,000 feet into the atmosphere, less than half the distance necessary for significant global effects, they said.

Still, environmentalists are alarmed that traces of soot have been found thousands of miles away at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Blackened snow also has been reported in the Himalayas.

A more immediate concern, American scientists said, is the impact in the Persian Gulf region. Sulfuric acid rain has been reported in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the southern Soviet Union, which are in the path of the prevailing winds. The World Meteorological Organization says that the fires dump more than 40,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, which forms the acid rain, into the atmosphere daily. That’s equal to the combined emissions of France, Germany and Great Britain.

Even the most dense smoke clouds become invisible to the naked eye at an altitude of about 100 miles, essentially, because the larger soot particles drop away. But monitoring equipment has shown that the fires’ plume, the area of most intense pollution, has fanned out over in an area 800 miles long — roughly the distance from New York City to the tip of Florida.

Just what is in the plume, and the risk it poses, are the subjects of some dispute.

In March, a team of international experts, including some from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, concluded there were no threatening amounts of sulfur dioxide or, worse, hydrogen sulfide — the gas with the rotten egg smell that can kill humans outright — being detected in the region. The scientists did find high concentrations of soot in the air but detected no alarming levels of toxic chemicals attached to that soot.

Nevertheless, Kuwait and the surrounding area will experience some of the highest evels of air pollution in the world in the next year, up to four times the highest levels in Los Angeles, said University of California pollution experts.

Even soot low in toxins poses a threat. The particles are small enough to enter the lungs, which physicians say can trigger asthma attacks and cause serious, immediate harm to people already suffering from respiratory problems.

The recent National Science Foundation study concluded that the effects of the oil well smoke on the environment is “more benign” and “isolated” than initially thought. The study, sanctioned by the Bush administration, has angered environmentalists who assert that the U.S. will use the study as a reason not to become involved in helping clean up Kuwait.

“I’m outraged at the report EPA brought back,” said Brent Blackwelder, vice president for policy for the environmental group Friends of the Earth. “It reads as if they’d visited a neighborhood bonfire to toast some marshmallows.”

The National Science Foundation report also has drawn fire for being premature and incomplete. The findings were based solely on data collected during flights over Kuwait and was issued before air and soil samples had been fully tested.

“I have to suspect a report issued before all the research was in,” said Michael Renner, of the Worldwatch organization. “I think the scientists may have been predisposed to their conclusions.”

Renner also accused the government of being concerned only about whether the fires would affect the United States, not about the damage to the Middle East.
The most urgent need, however, is to get the fires put out, and on this issue the Kuwait government has been a frequent target of criticism

While the country loses 5 million barrels of oil a day — almost 5 percent of the world consumption — the ruling AI-Sabah family angers environmentalists and firefiqhters with its slowness in responding to the recommendations of experts.

“In this trade we need all the help we can get,” veteran oil well firefighter Red Adair told the Senate Persian Gulf Environmental Task Force in June. “It’s about time somebody over there started straightening out what’s going on.”

Adair accused the Kuwaiti government of stalling payments for equipment desperately needed by the firefighters in hopes of finding a better deal. The result, he said, was that some of the equipment being used is “a pile of junk”

“They hired us to do this job, but they don’t want to take our advice,” said Raymond Henry, Adair’s senior firefighter. “We’ll suggest something and they want to mull it over, decide how much it will cost and act like they don’t think we know what the hell we’re talking about”

Adair’s is one of three American companies hired to fight the fires. A Canadian company also has signed a contract with Kuwait. At last count about 180 wells had been extinguished and the government is predicting the fires will be out by mid-1992.

Those figures are either grossly optimistic or deliberately misleading, say the critics.

“They are more concerned about the country’s image than they are about making it a place people want to come home to,” said Michael Bailey, of the environmental group EarthTrust.

Adair told the Senate panel that most of the wells that had been extinguished could be classified as “easy ones.” Some wells, including those that emit high concentrations of deadly hydrogen sulfide, will take a particularly long time lo extinguish because workers must wear air-tight gear and will need frequent breaks.

Adair said that unless changes are made, it could take twice as long to finish the job as Kuwait’s government predicts.

The firefighting companies themselves have not escaped criticism. Some firms have accused the big three firelighters of hoarding all the work and squeezing out the competition. One Kuwaiti official who asked not to be identified hinted that the firefighters are dragging their feet so that their lucrative contracts will last as long as possible.

Some competitors agree.

“I can’t name names, because I don’t know for sure. But I think it’s suspicious that three Texas-based companies, whose owners have known each other for years, get all the business in a job that 20 companies could make a lot of money on,” said Jack Sullivan of AMTEC International, a new oil field company.

Sullivan said his company had been informally promised a firefighting contract after he offered the Kuwaitis to be paid on a per-well basis. The Texas companies are paid a flat rate regardless of how fast or how many wells they extinguish — the longer it takes to extinguish the wells, the more money the companies stand lo make.

“After word spread that I was willing to be paid based on how productive my company is, we suddenly got the cold shoulder from Kuwait Oil Company,” Sullivan said.

A Kuwaiti official with the oil company said the company was aware of Sullivan’s accusations. “We’re looking into this matter,” he said

For the people of Ahmadi, the politics of the oil fires matters less than surviving the smoke. The residents, mostly unemployed Palestinians, have pleaded with the Kuwaiti government to evacuate them.

“The government refuses to take responsibility for these people,” said Bailey, who has spent time in Ahmadi. “If these were wealthy people, or just Kuwaiti citizens, I’m willing to bet they would have been evacuated as soon as possible.

But the government says it is a matter of equity, not discrimination. The government will not pay for relocation because “it would not be fair to those who paid their own way out of there,” said an Interior Ministry official.

In Kuwait City, only few miles from Ahmadi, the ominous black sky has become merely a dirty haze. Even the ever present odor of burned oil can’t completely stifle the hint of fresh air brought in by the Persian Gulf breezes.

These are good days in Kuwait. Thanks to persistent summer winds there have been more good days than bad the last few months. An air of hope is rising from the blackened homes and streets, a sense that perhaps the worst is over for a city that is reminded with every breath of the brutality of the Iraqi occupation.