Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 11, 1983, Page 4

Trade and Finance

The Gulf "Oil Slick"

Early last spring, the Western media was pointing with alarm to an ecological disaster which was taking place in the Gulf. A number of damaged Iranian oil wells were spewing their oil into Gulf waters, but could not be capped because of the danger to technicians resulting from the Iraq-Iran war. If the capping could not be done soon, many reports said, the disaster could turn into a catastrophe for the people of the area.

Western readers might be excused for thinking that somehow everything had come to a happy conclusion at least a couple of months ago, since during the intervening period they have found hardly any mention of the disastrous "oil slick" in their newspapers.

The fact is, however, that the wells have not yet been capped, and the leaks are still going on. Many of the early reports exaggerated the size of the leakage, but according to conservative estimates more than a quarter of a million barrels of oil have poured into the Gulf so far, with another two thousand or so barrels being added to the oil slick every day.

Most of the oil has remained on the Iranian side of the Gulf, with a large portion of it having washed up along a 75-mile strip of Iranian coastline in a desolate, sparsely-populated area roughly opposite the Saudi Arabian port of Darnman. Recently, however, winds have been blowing the oil slick westwards, towards the Arab side. Some of the oil has reached Bahrain beaches in the form of fist-sized and even football-sized lumps. But long-armed booms have deflected most of the oil away from the harbor. Such booms are being used by all the Gulf countries to protect harbors and other vital installations such as water desalination plants from being reached by the slick.

Damage to life in the waters of the Gulf has been considerable. Specialists estimate that about one half of the dukhas, a type of dolphin, have perished. In addition, they believe, about 20 percent of the Gulf's seasnakes and huge turtles have also died. They are vulnerable because they have to come up to the surface for air, and in doing so go through the oil. Fish can generally swim around the oil and survive—but the evidence on the extent to which the fish have escaped pollution is not yet clear. Shrimp, on the other hand, which are a major Gulf industry, are believed to have survived because they frequent the bottom of the Gulf—far underneath the oil slick, which floats relatively close to the surface. In fact, the shrimp are enjoying a vacation of sorts, because shrimp trawlers are being deterred by the Iraq-Iran war from putting to sea.

For the wells ever to be capped, Iraq and Iran will have to establish a ceasefire that would assure the security of the technicians—but have not been able to agree on the conditions that would allow a ceasefire to take effect.

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