Oil Disasters Through History: Seventh of Ten

In the days leading up to the 6th month anniversary of the BP deepwater drilling disaster, GRN is highlighting nine previous oil disasters, to give historic context to what the Gulf of Mexico is experiencing, and will experience for years to come.Persian Gulf War, 1991Unlike the other spills caused by weather and human error, the Persian Gulf War is even more of a tragedy due to the purposeful intention of the Iraqi troops to wreak havoc on the Persian Gulf environment as a “military tactic.” In January 1991, while fleeing Kuwait, the Iraqi troops sabotaged 783 oil wells in Kuwait. All together an estimated six to eight million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf. Over 700 km of coastline, from southern Kuwait to north of Jubail, were contaminated by oil.Information on the methods of cleaning up the oil is very limited. Booms and skimmers were used throughout the Gulf, as well as some dispersants. Long-term effects are still seen today, especially in Saudi Arabia where the Gulf’s current carried much of the oil. Due to the oil rigs burning for several months, extensive pollution reached beyond the coast and into the desert and drinking water systems. Three hundred oil lakes, containing 60 million gallons of crude, contaminated nineteen square miles of desert. Oil particle fallout due to the fires, contaminated 368 square miles of the surrounding land.The areas most affected by the oil spill include highly productive and highly sensitive mangroves and salt marshes. Immediately after the spill, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) contractors focused on keeping the mangroves as oil-free as possible. Low pressure flooding-sprinkling was applied to some mangrove stands. Those mangrove areas that were flushed to help clear some of the oil produced more seedlings and recovered stronger than the mangroves that received no clean-up attention.The salt marshes and sandy mud flats suffered both from oil contamination and from harsh clean-up methods following the spill. Some areas took at least five to ten years to return to their pre-oil state, while other areas are still recovering today. Studies show that the areas cleaned with rotoflushing, auto-flushing, rotovating and high pressure flushing systems are actually taking significantly longer to recover than the areas only partially cleaned or not cleaned at all. Areas were left severely disturbed, “looking like a ploughed field,” with the sediments still not resettling to their original formation more than a year later. Other issues include thick, intractable tar mats forming from the oil and covering areas of sediment. The tar mats seal off the surface and keep burrowing animals from digging or surfacing, as well as hinder any natural degradation of the oil trapped below it. Scientists argue that the only way to eliminate tar mat pollution is to go around and physically remove all tar mats. Photo: NOAA Incident News, Bergan oil field fires, January 1991

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