It began as a shower, a gentle autumn rain falling in the darkness of a November evening.
But through the night the rain kept falling and out on the desert tiny rivulets trickled down to the wide dry beds of the wadis. By dawn, nearly two inches had fallen and rising streams of thick brown water were lapping at the wadis' shallow, crumbling banks. Within hours the water had overflowed those banks and had begun to pour northward in an angry torrent—northward to Badanah, the Tapline Road and the trans-Arabian pipeline. The Great Badanah Flood had begun.
Floods are not unknown in Saudi Arabia. Although rain is scarce, when it does come it often falls so fast that the desert cannot absorb it. The results are flash floods that race down dry watercourses with enough speed and strength to turn a locomotive on its side. But the flood at Badanah last November 16 was no flash flood; it was the kind of flood nature usually reserves for areas like the Mississippi Valley: a raging torrent sweeping all before it. The only real difference at Badanah was that the longest oil pipeline in the Middle East happened to be in the way.
Badanah, one of four pump stations built by Tapline (the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line Company) is a small, well ordered station of some 200 inhabitants in the northeastern corner of Saudi Arabia, about 40 miles from the Iraqi frontier. The houses are neat and the trees—in sharp contrast to the arid barrenness beyond—are green and soft. Outside the station one section of the newly paved Tapline Road curves off to the east and another goes west. There are a hospital, a school, a dining hall, a swimming pool and, of course, a pump house where the great diesel-powered pumping units add their thrust to the oil coursing toward the Mediterranean from the fields of the country's Eastern Province.
On the night of the first rainfall all was quiet at Badanah. Certainly no one expected serious trouble. There was, to be sure, always the possibility of a flash flood, since Badanah sits just slightly above the junction of two huge dry river beds, Wadi Badanah and Wadi 'Ar'Ar, but with the foresight that marks most of its work, Tapline years ago constructed a dike about five feet high around the southern perimeter of the camp. And recently, in improving the Tapline Road, the company's engineers had bridged the Wadi Badanah with 11 culverts five feet nine inches high and eight feet two inches wide, enough to handle 735 million gallons an hour. No, there seemed to be no reason for alarm.
By 6 a.m. the next day, however, Superintendent Howard Jensen and others were uneasily prowling the dikes, the landing strip and the causeway, and taking another, much closer look at the situation. Desert Arabs coming into the station had warned that heavy water was on the way. And there was no doubt that the rainfall had been unusually heavy; in some places more than half the average rainfall for a whole year. Mr. Jensen decided some precautions were in order.
As the morning wore on, it became increasingly clear that neither the foresight of past years nor the precautions of the day were going to be of much value. The rain was still falling and instead of draining away into the sand as it usually does after a' storm, the water in the wadis was rising at an alarming rate. By mid-morning it was 14 feet deep at the culverts and washing across the road. Then, at 10 a.m., it breached the dike and a current of brown water poured into the station.
Station personnel, already on the alert, moved fast. In record time they evacuated 30 patients from the hospital and moved the instruments and equipment to the upper floor. In the Government Relations office the staff stored precious files at safe levels and moved to higher ground.
The water was moving fast too. It swept across the roads and under doors, a brown tide three and a half feet deep. In the Government Relations office it reached a depth of 18 inches, in the hospital 12 inches. It broke the freshwater pipelines in three places between the station and the town of Badanah. It brought down the main power line and two utility poles, flooded the adjacent Government deep test water well drilling operations and cut off the village of 'Ar'Ar from the main road. Over by the Wadi Badanah it nearly took the life of a Tapline employee sent out with a heavy bulldozer to open a drainage hole in the lower end of the dike. The water poured through the break so swiftly it swept him and the bulldozer 20 feet downstream and stranded him until other workers could get a rope to him and pull him ashore.
Up and down the pipeline for 100 miles similar conditions were developing: great sheets of water spilling down into small gullies, churning down into the wadis and sweeping away across the desert in leapfrogging waves that scooped up sand, rolled boulders end over end, scoured the piers that held the pipelines and chewed ragged chunks out of the shoulders of the road. From above it looked not like the arid waterless desert that it had been for the past 20 years but like a huge river flowing through an endless marsh.
In Rafha, meanwhile, the gauges in the pump house suddenly registered a drop in discharge pressure and an increase in the station flow rate of about 300 barrels an hour.
To the dispatcher in Beirut, to whom the information was reported, this was not immediately alarming. Although such developments can mean a leak, the cooling effect of rain on the pipeline produces exactly the same effect. But when the pressure did not return to normal and when inquiries disclosed that Badanah had made no adjustments that would explain the change, the dispatcher had to act. Normally he would have sent out a line patrol by car, but because of the road washouts that had been reported he flashed a request to a Tapline DC—3 then en route to Qaisumah, asking the pilots to keep an eye out for a leak. They did, and at 3:30 p.m. radioed back that the dispatcher's suspicions were confirmed: there was a large pool of oil forming in the desert about 40 miles east of Badanah. It was a leak and it was a bad one.
To Tapline, leaks are never routine. Yet the technique of dealing with them has been so polished over the past 19 years that they rarely result in heavy losses. But the Badanah leak, it was soon clear, was going to be different.
For one thing the demand for oil last November was unusually heavy. With the Suez Canal closed, tankers were lining up at Tapline's Sidon terminal like customers in a cafeteria. Seldom before, in fact, had Tapline's share of the oil transportation burden been heavier. That meant that if at all possible the leak had to be fixed without reducing the throughput.
The technical problems were also formidable. The site of the leak was in the center of a shallow depression that the flood had transformed into an astonishingly large lake: nearly 1,000 feet across by approximately a half mile long. Indeed water flowing into the lake may have caused the leak by cracking a weld. Exactly how, no one was sure, but with waves breaking against the above ground pipeline, engineers theorize, the vibrations may have been too much for a girth weld already under high tension caused by cool temperatures and cold water lapping against the bottom of the pipe.
The size of the leak also made a difference: a crack 36 inches long, one third the circumference of the pipe—and a loss of 3,000 barrels an hour. Even worse, the oil, spurting out with a pressure of 400 pounds per square inch behind it, had gouged a hole 10 feet in diameter and at least 10 feet deep beneath the line, creating a pool much too deep for men to stand in and work.
Off to Dhahran, therefore, went a strange message from a company that operates in one of the driest desert areas in the world: send us some boats.
Dhahran, headquarters of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) didn't blink an eye; it scouted around, found two six-man rubber life rafts, and loaded them aboard an Aramco Beaver that Tapline also needed to move supplies and people until roads couid be reopened. The next day about 2 p.m. the Beaver landed at Badanah, picked up the repair crew, with their tools and equipment, and went on to kilometer 517, the site of the leak.
There are several ways of repairing a leak in a pipeline, but the simplest is to bolt a large, 150-pound circular band around the crack. The band comes in two parts, each a two-foot wide semicircle of steel a half inch thick, with ears at each tip like the flaps on a ski cap. Inside, fitted to the steel, is a quarter inch lining of compressible neoprene. When the band is clamped in place the neoprene lining presses snugly against the pipeline and, with luck, seals the crack as the bolts in the ears are tightened.
There are hazards, of course. One is the presence of potent hydrogen sulphide gas. Another is the highly volatile nature of unrefined crude oil when it is fresh out of the pipe. And this time there were additional complications: the 130,000 barrels of lost oil spread across the lake in a layer nearly a foot thick; the lack of any lifting or earth moving equipment; the necessity to work in, or across a deep pit filled with oil and water.
The pit offered special difficulties: trying to clamp a 150-pound band around a leaking pipeline without a place to stand was rather like applying a tourniquet to a bleeding artery without touching the patient.
For Tapline's seasoned crews, however, all that added up to just one more challenge. Having weighed the hazards and difficulties against their own experience and knowledge they decided it could not only be done, but could be done with only a slight reduction in the normal daily flow of oil through the line. Thus, bright and early on Saturday, they heaved their tools and the band into the boats, donned their rubber rain suits and hip boots, slipped on gas masks and waded in.
The first step was to assemble the band on the pipeline tightly enough so it would close the leak but loosely enough so it could be pulled into place by long ropes. About as easy, one man said, as slipping an engagement ring on a girl's finger with chopsticks.
The men also had to work as close to the leak as possible but in water shallow enough to work in. This turned out to be a point 30 feet upstream and even there they faced difficulties. Working in a waist-deep mixture of water and oil proved to be extremely difficult. Rafts had to be lashed to the pipeline so they wouldn't float away—and the crew had to fasten life lines to themselves so they could be pulled ashore in an emergency. To make everything harder the dangling air-purifying cannisters for the gas masks kept dipping into the film of oil and getting clogged with black, viscous petroleum.
Because of the difficulties it took most of Saturday to finish the job, but about 4 p.m. the last of the four bolts on the band was tightened and the crew made their weary way to the shore to see if they were successful. In minutes the gauges at Badanah gave the answer: the loss rate dropped from 3,000 barrels an hour to 120. Phase I was over. Now they could concentrate on Phase II.
In sealing off the break Tapline's repairmen had gotten rid of the worst problem. What remained to be done, however, Was no snap: welding the band in place and disposing of nearly 130,000 barrels of oil.
Although welding a steel band to a pipeful of volatile crude oil sounds dangerous, it seldom is. But this particular job had to be done in the middle of a lake that had been filling up with oil for 53 hours. The first step, obviously, was to get rid of some of the oil.
Earlier that Saturday, Tapline's manager had sent orders down the line to bring up a heavy pay loader, a bulldozer, a grader and five trucks that by sheer good luck were standing by for some road work just 20 miles away. Thus by the time the band was bolted in place an impressive squadron of earth-moving equipment was already on its way. The operators had to stop twice to fill huge gaps the flood had torn out of the roadway but by Saturday night they had lumbered into position and on Sunday went into action.
The first job in the dispersal phase was to prepare a place to put the oil. Engineers had already decided that there were two good places, a small depression southeast of the lake and an area on the other—north—side of the road. To move the oil into the bowl was simply a matter of opening a canal through which the lake with its film of oil could drain. The other required that engineers construct a sand dike on the northern edge of the road and plug the culverts that led under the road to the lake. When the dike was finished, two pumps able to move 1,000 gallons a minute were turned on, the canal was opened and the lake began to subside.
The first task accomplished, the bulldozers and loaders clanked into position and set to work scraping and lifting more sand, enough to construct and extend two twelve-foot wide dikes out into the lake from the shore, one on each side of the pipeline. Then, using the dikes as roads, they carried out enough sand to build an island 130 feet across and surrounding the cracked part of the line. Finally, with a large part of the oil drained or pumped away, the rest blocked off by solid earthen barriers, they welded the band to the pipe and the emergency was over.
In the days that followed Tapline crews were too busy to talk much about the flood: busy cleaning up a three-inch carpet of mud in the station, restoring power and water, burning the oil they had drained away from the break. They also had to crank up a major road reconstruction project to restore the miles of damaged roadway arid inspect, on foot, nearly 250 miles of the pipeline to be sure the flood waters had not knocked it out of alignment, damaged the supports or exposed buried line.
But now, four months later, the emergency assignments are long behind them, the road repairs are nearly complete, the oil is coursing smoothly through the line and another hot dry summer is just over the horizon—a summer in which the men of Badanah will look out at the dusty wadis by the station and remember brown torrents foaming over j the banks and skilled men wading into a desert lake. That's when they'll really talk about it and when the stories will begin—the rest of the stories, that is—about the Great Badanah Flood.
Paul F. Hoye is Editor of Aramco World Magazine .