Legendary oil-field firefighter Red Adair said it could take four to five years to extinguish Kuwait's well fires unless "Mickey Mouse" delays in obtaining equipment and water supplies are resolved.
Adair, the Texan who pioneered methods for snuffing oil-well blowouts, was characteristically blunt last week in dismissing predictions by some Kuwaiti officials that all the fires might be put out within a year."That's a bunch of malarkey," he told a Senate panel investigating pollution problems in the Persian Gulf region. "No way."
Asked for his best estimate, Adair said: "At the rate we're going, we'll get to them in the next four or five years. I think we could cut it in half if we had proper equipment, proper water and everything we need."
The gruff, white-haired firefighter blamed the equipment delays on red tape and bargain-hunting on the part of the engineering firms hired by the Kuwaiti government to coordinate the cleanup effort. Instead of snapping up needed items, he said, "they are looking for the best bid."
As a result, he said his men were sitting around waiting for essential items or making do with less than the best.
"We're doing it `Mickey Mouse' now," Adair said. "I call it a `Mickey Mouse' operation."
Despite the supply problems, Adair said his firm and two other U.S. firefighting companies had capped 157 of the approximately 600 Kuwaiti oil wells damaged by the Iraqis.
But he cautioned that most of wells addressed so far were "easy ones," and that his crews now faced bigger fires, some located in uncharted minefields or possibly boobytrapped with explosives.
Complicating matters are vast lakes of oil being fed by leaking wells and now covering some wells and minefields with viscous crude up to 6 feet deep.
"We're getting closer to the minefields and that's what we're really worried about," he said. "We hear about the minefields, but nobody knows where they are."
In particular, he said firefighters were preparing to tackle Kuwait's Burgan oil field, where he said some blazes are so hot they can be felt up to a half-mile away and sand surrounding some wellheads has been turned to glass. "We haven't gotten to them yet," Adair said of the Burgan fires. "They are next on the list. The real hard work hasn't started."
Adair said those tough jobs would take even longer unless the engineering companies hired by the Kuwaiti government speeded up deliveries of essential equipment and water.
"They need someone in Kuwait who really knows how to set up an organization and get it going," he said. "If not, we're going to be there for 10 years."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., chairman of the gulf pollution task force, promised Adair he would contact Kuwaiti and Saudi officials in an attempt to cut through the delays.