Some Oil Fires Die Out, Other Problems Loom


Some of Kuwait’s more than 500 oil well fires have gone out naturally and a substantial number of others are also likely to stop burning on their own, environmental officials said here Saturday.

But what may seem like a ray of hope in a disaster of unprecedented scope presents its own set of problems, the officials cautioned.

While a few burning wells have indeed put themselves out, most of these continue to gush oil, creating massive petroleum lakes that are fouling the desert, encroaching on suburban neighborhoods and threatening to contaminate underground water tables.


Meanwhile, environmental officials from Kuwait and the United Nations subtly criticized a handful of countries, including Germany and Japan, for what they suggested was inadequate response to requests for help.

“There is a reluctance to take action on this,” complained Michael D. Gwynne, director of the U.N. global environment monitoring system.

In another oil-related development, Kuwait’s minister for Cabinet affairs, Abdul-Rahman Awadi, said Saturday that the government intends soon to issue surgical-type face masks to all people living or working near the oil well fires.

At the same time, Awadi said tests have shown that dense smoke emanating from the fires poses little short-term health risk to residents of Kuwait city, where the bulk of the emirate’s population lives.

Prevailing winds in the region blow from the northwest, while most of the blazing oil wells are 20 or more miles to the south and southwest of Kuwait city.

Air quality in the capital, Awadi insisted, “is much safer than most industrial cities in Europe.”

Nonetheless, he and other officials acknowledged that environmental assessments have thus far been limited--retreating Iraqi troops stole much of Kuwait’s monitoring equipment--and it may be months before the full impact on human health is known.

Critics have complained that accurate assessments have been further hampered by Kuwaiti bureaucracies that have forced some international environmental teams and their equipment to wait days at the Saudi border for permission to enter the country.

Awadi attributed the problem to the fact that there is only one two-lane highway leading into Kuwait from Saudi Arabia. Consequently, he said, the border station at the town of Khafji has been chronically bottlenecked with trucks.

Journalists who have driven through the checkpoint in recent days, however, report that it is virtually clear of traffic.

“As days go by,” Awadi responded when asked about the apparent inconsistency, “things are going better.”

Gwynne of the United Nations said that 13 oil wells set afire last month by the Iraqis have been capped by various means and that some--he did not know how many--have stopped burning on their own without being attacked by firefighting crews. Water from adjacent layers of rock has been drawn into those wells, quenching the flames, he said.

There is a possibility that a “substantial” number of other burning wells may similarly extinguish themselves in coming weeks and months, he said. Much depends on the nature of geographic formations around each well and the damage done to each wellhead by explosive charges detonated by Iraqi engineers before they retreated from Kuwait.

Wells that burn themselves out but continue to spew oil uncontrollably pose particular hazards, including contaminating underground water reserves and emitting potentially lethal gases, according to experts. Last week, Kuwaiti Oil Minister Rashid Amiri announced that crews had begun reigniting some wells to dissipate toxic gases while building sand berms to stop flowing oil from flooding outlying residential areas and highways.

The oil minister appealed for additional help internationally, a plea reiterated Saturday by Gwynne and other officials at a news conference.

Gwynne noted that while Japan has contributed four planeloads of floating booms to help fight oil that was spilled into the Persian Gulf during the war, Japanese leaders have so far been noncommittal about providing additional support. So have Germany, Canada and some Scandinavian states, though all have been solicited for environmental help, he said.

Officials in some countries have indicated that once the United Nations prepares a comprehensive outline for an environmental protection plan--which may take another two months--they will send the necessary experts and material, Gwynne said.

In the interim, he noted, the United Nations “doesn’t have enormous resources at its disposal to handle this. It is the nations that have resources.”

As he spoke, a Houston-based firefighting crew attempted unsuccessfully Saturday to extinguish one of hundreds of burning oil wells near the town of Ahmadi, about 20 miles south of Kuwait city.

The crew, members of the firm Boots & Coots Inc., ran out of trucked-in water that would have allowed them to get close enough to the flaming wellhead to determine the extent of damage.

Boots Hansen, the head of the company, said he was not discouraged. Engineers are currently converting a pipeline that once pumped oil from the oil fields to pump an unlimited supply of seawater to the fires for firefighting.

The pipeline is expected to be ready in about three weeks.