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DAMAGED GULF ENVIRONMENT MAY TAKE YEARS TO RESTORE

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As the firefighters dousing Kuwait's blazing oilfields near the end of their mission, the states of the Persian Gulf face the daunting task of restoring their damaged environment. The job could take years.

Environmentalists want action while one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history is still headline news."Once the well fires are extinguished, the perception of the crisis will diminish rapidly, the international memory of the incident will quickly fade," said Richard Golob, an oil pollution control expert based in Cambridge, Mass.

"The wells serve as a reminder that Kuwait and the gulf region have suffered an unprecedented environmental catastrophe."

Iraqi troops let loose the world's biggest oil slick, estimated at 4 million barrels, and set ablaze or damaged 732 oil wells before they were forced from Kuwait in February.

Oil officials said Tuesday that 18 wells had yet to be brought under control. Finally, the black cloud covering Kuwait has gradually thinned to reveal blue skies for the first time in months.

Twenty-seven firefighting teams from the United States, Canada, Britain, China, Iran, France and elsewhere are preparing to head home. The last well fire is expected to be snuffed in early November.

Much of the fragile ecology of Kuwait's desert has been devastated, however, and a thick coating of crude smears about 400 miles of Saudi Arabia's coastline.

"Kuwait won't be back to normal for decades," said Paul Horsman, gulf coordinator of the London-Based Greenpeace environmental protection group.

The oil slick and pollution killed thousands of birds and destroyed desert vegetation, mammals and reptiles. Fishing grounds, a key part of the gulf's ecology and major food source, have been ravaged.