Paul Nicklen waited six hours lying in frigid water to catch this sockeye salmon in a Vancouver Island river. In this dark and surrealistic landscape a drizzle of soot and oil flashes in our headlights and stains our protective gauze masks. A few miles to the south, where the Persian Gulf washes the sands of the Arabian Peninsula, another environmental atrocity assaults the region.
I visited the gulf soon after the guns had stilled, when concern was beginning to focus on the war’s environmental impact. The oil fires in Kuwait, and the monstrous plume they exhaled, riveted the world’s attention. Human health is already being affected, in ways and degrees perhaps never to be known with certainty. Hammad Butti, an employee of the Kuwait Oil Company in Al Ahmadi, south of Kuwait City, had watched helplessly as the Iraqis blew up the wells. We went to his home, half a duplex of company housing, within earshot of the howling well fires. THIRTY MILES SOUTH of Kuwait City, I visited a once innovative agricultural experiment station. Iraqi soldiers had bivouacked at the station, and it lay in shambles; even the photocopiers had been booby-trapped. We entered the greenhouse area; Arab agriculture relies heavily on these shelters from heat and cold.
At the Kuwait zoo, a handful of animals and these were suffering from neglect; some bore wounds inflicted by Iraqis who shot caged beasts for food or pleasure. KUWAITIS KNEW their environment was in dire trouble, but they had lost the means to measure the damage. The mounting stench outside the International Hotel signaled another environmental problem: Trash was piling up, and the shattered national infrastructure could not cope. Nightmarish as the present spill is, if four brave Kuwaitis had not tricked the Iraqis, it could have been three times as large. Quick action - though limited in scope - came from Saudi Aramco, the immense national oil company. TO GAUGE the enormity of the disaster, I flew in a Saudi helicopter with Aziz Alomari, MEPA’s daily reconnaissance scout. Offshore, an immense film of oil called sheen polished the sea and mirrored the somber smoke cloud from the Kuwaiti oil fires.
From the air this effort appeared puny—a few crews sent out by Aramco, the Royal Commission, and MEPA manning skimmers and vacuum trucks and dumping the recovered oil into inland disposal pits for salvage later.
That evening at MEPA headquarters in Dhahran I attended the daily meeting of the spill-response team, a group ably led by Nizar Tawfiq.
Ominous news came from Jay Rodstein, the NOAA spill-trajectory analyst: Oil was nearing the north coast of Bahrain.
Abdul Rahman Al-Shahri gave the Aramco update: 320 men in the field had recovered 16,549 barrels of oil that day.
At the edge of the circle of oil fighters sat an anxious and dwindling group: private contractors, many of them American. The agency seemed unable to make the decisions needed to protect Saudi wetlands and the wildlife and fisheries they supported. I JOINED A GROUP pointing toward stricken Al Musallamiyah Bay, favored habitat for migrant wading birds.
Approaching the bay, we encountered a target range used by troops preparing for the ground war.
Assistant director Peter Symens pointed out recent arrivals: a begrimed gray heron, a great cormorant, a haughty Caspian tern, ruffled and indignant. Hundreds of birds milled in recovery rooms, waiting to regain their natural water repellence. Run by the wildlife commission in an unused cafeteria, the center became a magnet for volunteers.
At press time, Alpha was optimistic that it would soon win a test of its technology on a Saudi beach. Bad news came from NOAA: Radar told of oil reaching Bahrain, where abundant sea grass supports large populations of dugongs, mammalian cousins of manatees.
During the two months of seeming inaction that followed the spill, the international team often drew comparisons with other spills, such as Exxon Valdez in Alaska.
Tests downwind of the fires, made by the British Meteorological Office, found a high concentration of particulates.
As the fire fighters extinguish the wells, skies gradually will clear over Kuwait and lands downwind, and the worst of the nightmare will fade.

From the Apple Menu (at the top left of your screen) select CONTROL PANELS, then DESKTOP PICTURES or APPEARANCE. Twisting and writhing in the wind, they resemble flaming tornadoes tethered to their wellheads. Here probably the largest oil spill ever known, covering some 600 square miles (1,553,993 square kilometers) of sea surface, blackens 300 miles (483 kilometers) of coastline and much of the wildlife it nurtured.
Thousands of military vehicles, churning the desert surface in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq, have violently altered the soil structure. I came away appalled by the magnitude of the disaster and the wantonness of the Iraqis who perpetrated it. Each day relentless flames devoured about five million barrels of oil, generating more than half a million tons (500 metric tons) of aerial pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, the key component of acid rain. Three Texas fire-fighting crews and one from Canada were struggling to fly in equipment and contend with land mines and bureaucracy when I roved the country in mid-March. Butti took me to see the control room, which had regulated the flow of oil from the field to offshore tankers.
Before the war immigrant workers in this irrigated oasis had raised an abundance of vegetables and fruits, chickens and eggs. Others had disappeared believed abducted to Iraq—while a fortunate few had been adopted by Kuwaitis, to be returned when the storm of war had passed. Before the war this wealthy nation had supported one of the premier scientific centers of the Middle East, the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. There, in the semidarkness of a city without electricity and living under the smoke, I spoke with technician Sabah Abdul-Wahab.
These make the gulf an important region for migrating and wintering wading birds, including plovers and sandpipers. Vital facilities line the threatened coast: tanker terminals, refineries, power and desalination plants. This is the Royal Commission for Jubayl and Yanbu, whose head, Prince Abdullah ibn Faisal ibn Turki, presides over an empire of refineries and petrochemical plants.
The United States Coast Guard dispatched two radar-surveillance aircraft specially equipped to monitor slicks. Compared with emergency responses familiar to the international group, however, the gulf cleanup effort appeared minuscule and irresolute. A Dutch contractor hired by MEPA gave a similarly encouraging report, as did an American firm recovering oil for the Royal Commission. With news of the spill, hundreds of oil-cleanup companies had seen a need and an opportunity and had offered their services. Almost daily foreign teams visited the coast to survey the damage and prescribe cleanup procedures, but little action followed. As planned, oil piled up on their seaward sides, while the protected channels carried clear water past healthy trees.
Mid-March brought Ramadan, the Islamic month of daytime fasting, and the tempo of work slowed. Alpha 30 Environmental had come from Austin to cleanse Saudi wetlands with its oil-eating microbes and a special biocatalyst to stimulate them.
This has prompted a major research initiative by the National Science Foundation, the University of Washington and several other universities, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the National Geographic Society. In shallows along the Saudi coast, plants and animals will recolonize, but here too the healing may never be complete. Throughout this shattered land more than 500 flaming wells spew poisons aloft, each systematically ignited by Iraqi invaders three weeks before. Blasting pipelines and storage facilities and emptying loaded tankers, the Iraqis deliberately spilled as much as six million barrels of crude-Iraqi as well as Kuwaiti. A result, says Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, may be a worsening of sandstorms whipped up by the shamal, the notorious northwesterlies.
I learned too that only intensive medical and scientific monitoring can ultimately assess its true cost.
Two months later a hundred wells had been brought under control, but these were the easiest ones. A film of grimy oil coated every surface, including the skin and clothes of his 17 children.
Kawash, a professional nurse, was in charge of the emergency room at the oil-company hospital. Around them grew small lakes of oil, and these caused great concern: What if they found their way down to the gulf? Officials estimate that a quarter of a million barrels a year routinely spill—much more was lost during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war - and most gulf nations possess limited cleanup capabilities.

The company laid down 25 miles (40 kilometers) of boom, mobilized a fleet of 21 oil-recovery vessels, and activated its arsenal of cleanup devices. It found itself overwhelmed by the colossal spill—a disaster that would have overtaxed the response capabilities of Western nations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sent a spill-trajectory analyst, and the Fish and Wildlife Service designated a spill-response biologist. My imagination saw a malevolent giant wielding a Magic Marker to outline the crenellated coast.
Here the inter-tidal zone was a black band a mile wide; pools of oil waited for the next tide to smear it on more wildlife habitat. A handful of representatives sat uneasily night after night, incurring costs, awaiting action by MEPA.
The IMO was coordinating international assistance on the spill and has since set up a multimillion-dollar cleanup fund. Oestergaard had recognized Alba as one of the companies having the technology for cleaning fragile beaches.
Egg-laying season was approaching and there was worry about the turtles’ nesting grounds.
Fish and Wild life, had worked with three other volunteers lay 1,100 feet of protective boom across tidal channels carrying oil among the trees.
The Research Institute of King Fahd University set up experiments to test the technology and its aftereffects.
In late March, just before I left the kingdom, word came that MEPA had named Crowley Maritime Corporation, a major U.S. Ten thousand workers at a time, volunteer and official, had labored to help clean that states fouled beaches.
Seawater samples from the northern gulf showed levels of metals ten times higher than normal. Samplings revealed no significant amounts of carbon monoxide or the two dread combustion products, hydrogen sulfide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Those who live in Kuwait City may be at special risk should temperature inversions-common in summer-trap and concentrate the oil-fire smoke. Paradoxically, where the Kuwaiti smoke cloud hangs over the desert, falling oil and soot congeal with the sand to form a brittle crust. Dependence on foreigners, I learned, characterized pre-war Kuwait, and now their absence contributed much to the country’s seeming paralysis. Floating in the sheen were chocolate mats known as mousse - older oil that had combined with the water to form an emulsion. Countless doomed trees lined tidal channels that once pulsed with life and now ran black with oil. Senior meteorologist Walid Bakir Agha predicted the next day’s winds and where they might move the oil.
McMurtrie, alluding to the ease with which many baylets could have been protectively boomed. The islands were badly oiled and littered with debris that the amphibians would scarcely be able to lumber ashore and dig pits. Kane waded into oily water above the tops of his boots and secured the boom to a sturdy mangrove. The kingdom had not only waged a war but also generated electricity and water to support three-quarters of a million foreign troops. Fortunately the fires lack the energy to pump contaminants directly into the stratosphere, so they may not cause the climatic change some had predicted. The island was serving as a natural boom, holding back the black tide from industrial Al Jubayl, from Tarut Bay and its fleet of fishing dhows, from the great industrial port of Ad Dammam.
Soon assorted combinations of bugs, catalyst, seawater, and floating oil were percolating in an institute lab. It was stretched financially, and wartime conditions had prevented obedience to the first rule in an oil spill: Stop the flow at its source. Plant geneticist Bikram Gill of Kansas State University sees a danger to ancestral grasses that may hold genes important to cereals like wheat.
It nuzzles our headlamps oddly, as if craving light, then reaches for our offering of apples and water. The thousands of workers had returned to the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and India, affecting national economies that had benefited from wages they sent home.

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