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Volume 42, Number 3May/June 1991

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War Within a War

Written by Tom Pledge
Photographed by Ron Johnson

The first word of a significant oil spill in the I Arabian Gulf reached Saudi Aramco in a telephone call at two a.m. on Friday, January 25th.

A security officer woke Abdulla Zaindin, Aramco's global oil spill coordinator, to report "a lot of oil in the water in the Kuwait-Khafji area," near Saudi Arabia's northern border. "The mother of all oil spills," as it came to be called, had arrived.

Later that same day, the news media reported from Washington that the White House and the Pentagon had charged that Iraq was deliberately pumping huge amounts of crude oil into the Gulf.

After non-stop telephone consultations on Friday, the company's 11-member Oil Spill Committee met in emergency session at Saudi Aramco headquarters in Dhahran on January 26th. The committee makes policy decisions and commits manpower, equipment and material to oil spill protection efforts which affect the company and its affiliates, or other members of the Gulf Area Oil Companies Mutual Aid Organization (GAOCMAO).

Experienced oilmen, the committee's members knew that within days the oil would probably be drawn south into Saudi waters by prevailing winds and currents. And oil in the water could shut down all of the kingdom's offshore crude oil production and, worse, close onshore desalination and power plants that use seawater to produce drinking water and electricity for military and civilian use.

Less than one part of oil in a million parts of seawater could close vital facilities.

Saudi Aramco already had a contingency plan in place that detailed a coordinated, company-wide response to a major oil spill. The plan established priorities, in this order: to protect human life, prevent or reduce the flow of oil from the source, protect marine environment and property, and minimize economic loss.

But the plan hadn't anticipated the unique problems involved in coping with a massive oil spill in the midst of a shooting war.

The Gulf conflict made it impossible to carry out at least some key parts of the plan. There was no way, for instance, to get to the source of the spill - a primary goal of any oil-spill control effort - because the spill was in the middle of the combat zone. Even reconnaissance flights to determine the size of the spill and the direction it was moving were circumscribed.

"No one in the world has had an experience like that," Zaindin said. "We didn't know how large the oil spill was, when it would show up in Saudi waters, where it was, or what resources we would need to deal with it."

Yet the charge that the spill had been deliberately caused came as no surprise. "We knew the Iraqi government had been threatening to 'turn the Gulf into flame,'" committee chairman Dhaifalla A. Faris al-Utaibi said.

"They planned to release oil and ignite it in an attempt to stop any amphibious landings. We had met about that threat and were getting prepared for such an event."

No one was prepared, however, for the sheer volume of oil that had apparently been dumped into the Gulf.

On the basis of initial US estimates given to the Oil Spill Committee on January 26th, it appeared that the northern Arabian Gulf might have been hit with the largest oil spill ever, perhaps larger than any experienced before - including the previous record spill, the 4.2 million barrels spilled over 40 days from a well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979.

"I was prepared in my mind for something large," Zaindin said, "but not for an oil spill of anything like that size."

Under Saudi Arabia's National Oil Spill Contingency Plan, Aramco's responsibility was to take care of its own facilities, then assist with others as required.

The committee acted quickly, approving at its first meeting immediate charters of oil-spill control vessels and the purchase of oil barrier booms and dispersants wherever they could be found, and requesting permission from the military for aerial spraying of dispersants.

The committee also activated the oil-spill response team, a pre-designated group of key people who would be pulled away from their regular jobs and put into the field as on-the-scene directors of the oil-spill protection campaign.

Finally, Saudi Aramco decided to let the world know it could handle the threat to its facilities, so vital to the war effort. At a news conference, senior vice president Abdelaziz M. al-Hokail was spokesman for the company.

"We feel quite confident at this time that we will be able to emerge from this incident without any effects on our oil production, processing or exporting capability," he said at a January 27th news conference in the Dhahran International Hotel, headquarters for the news media during the Gulf war.

Al-Hokail acknowledged the probability of "serious" environmental effects from the oil-spill, but he said that "critical [industrial] facilities that use seawater for cooling purposes or as a desalination source have already been well protected and will, therefore, not be affected."

It was Mike Erspamer's job to keep that promise. Manager of terminal operations at Ras Tanura - Saudi Aramco's largest tank farm and export terminal - he was the head of the newly activated oil-spill response team; he and his men were setting up a control center at Tanajib even as al-Hokail spoke.

Most of the company's oil-spill protection manpower and equipment was concentrated at its two northern-most installations, the oil desalting plant at Safaniya and the reverse-osmosis water desalination plant known as Tanajib. Saudi Aramco also had oil-spill protection and planning responsibilities at some non-Aramco facilities, among them the Aziziya desalination plant near al-Khobar, the Qurayya thermal power plant, and the desalination plant at Jubail, the largest such facility in the world, 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Tanajib.

Aramco's Safaniya plant, 96 kilometers (60 miles) south of the Kuwait border, removes salty water from nearly 2.7 million barrels of oil drawn daily from the world's largest offshore oil field. Tanajib, 24 kilometers (15 miles) south of Safaniya, was especially critical because it supplied some 1.5 million liters (400,000 US gallons) of water daily to allied military forces in the region, as well as water for the Aramco work force.

The delicate osmotic membranes at the Tanajib plant could be fouled by as little as five cubic centimeters of oil - a single teaspoon - dispersed in 5000 liters of water (1320 US gallons), forcing the plant to shut down. Safaniya could tolerate up to five times that concentration of oil, but it too was vulnerable.

The seawater intakes at Safaniya and Tanajib are protected by parallel stone breakwaters extending about 820 meters (2690 feet) into the Gulf and connected by a 90-meter (295-foot) seawall at the far end. The walls are made of loosely piled uncut rock, and are permeable to seawater.

The box-shaped intake channel had already been lined with and crisscrossed by deflection booms when Erspamer and his crew arrived. So they set about building a system of booms outside the seawalls to deflect oil out of the area.

In the first week after the spill, two cooperatives of which Saudi Aramco is a member - the Oil Spill Service Center Cooperative in Southampton, England, and GAOC-MAO - sent nearly 70 tons of booms and skimmers to Aramco's operating area. By working around the clock, the team managed to deploy most of that material as soon as it arrived. In the first seven days, they deployed 11.2 kilometers (seven miles) of protective booms outside the intake channels, and set about 100 pilings in the seafloor to secure the booms. The back bays, shallow inlets south of Safaniya and Tanajib, were also boomed off and readied as secondary water sources should the plants' main ones become unusable.

The first concentration of floating oil arrived in Safaniya in early February, and with it came a major disappointment. The dispersant chemicals, mainstays of other spill-fighting operations, didn't work. The oil had been in the water too long and its lighter components had evaporated, leaving behind heavier oil impervious to the chemicals.

The system of booms and skimmers became both the first and the last line of defense.

Soon the weather turned sour as well. Waves up to two meters (six feet) high, kicked up by strong northwest winds, battered the outer lines of diversion booms. By the afternoon of February 4th, patches of thick brown oil were reported outside the diversion booms at Safaniya, and windrows and ribbons of oil sheen were showing inside the booms - but the oil had still not penetrated the intakes.

"We must have more absorbent boom and skimmers ready to take care of what may get by the outside booms," Erspamer warned Dhahran. "Protective measures inside the seawalls appear to be working, but outside they're just not standing up to extreme weather conditions."

Excerpts from Erspamer's daily reports to Dhahran during the next several days tell of his concerns:

"Expedite more material.... Must have absorbent booms Contractors advise that their people will not drive or operate equipment in the war area. Some waymust be found to seal the porous walls of the seawater intakes."

Aramco-affiliated offices in Dhahran, Houston, Leiden, and New York were searching out and buying oil-spill protection equipment around the world. Vendors' stocks were severely depleted, however, and, adding to the difficulty, commercial flights to Dhahran and Riyadh had been canceled when the air war started. It took ingenuity, constantly renewed, to get whatever equipment could be found transported into eastern Saudi Arabia.

Booms from different manufacturers didn't lock together well once they were bought, imported and placed in service. To mate different brands, makeshift clasps had to be devised on the spot. Those often broke in high seas.

What's more, the anchors that apparently successfully held the booms in place elsewhere in the world didn't hold in the sandy bottom and the rough weather that prevailed in the Arabian Gulf.

As soon as a repair was made in one area, something broke in another. There was no getting ahead, it seemed: It was all the crews could do to stay even.

Then nature threw the oil-spill effort another curve. The wind backed around unseasonably from northwest to southwest, and the strong southwest winds pushed oil that had already been diverted around the intake channels back up against the unprotected south side of the porous seawalls.

"Our basic thinking was good, but it only took into account the wind coming out of the prevailing direction, which was north and northwest," Erspamer said. "We learned that you had to divert oil from both sides."

By now men had been fighting against the oil and the forces of nature for 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for almost three weeks.

The beaches they fought on had a nightmarish look to them. Where turquoise waters once danced, a sullen black glair of oil heaved and bubbled. Bodies of dead seabirds littered the shore. The air smelled of oil and tasted of oil.

On the rocky seawalls, scores of men worked day and night, moving and replacing booms, running skimmers to suck oil out of the intake channels. It was a treacherous place to work: Some rocks were loose and wobbly, some were slick. A slip could bring a bone-jarring fall or a plunge down into oily water.

The divers, between 55 and 60 of them, had "an especially depressing, messy job," as one of them described it. They worked from sunup to sundown, and sometimes longer, in chilly, oil-covered water that seeped into their wetsuits and coated and chapped their skin.

Their main job was to install, repair and reposition the booms, sometimes moving the same boom two or three times in a day. To do so they wrestled with boom anchors improvised from two-ton pieces of pipe, replacements for the regular 23-kilogram (50-pound) boom anchors that wouldn't hold here.

"Those guys worked a tremendous job under the most difficult conditions. It was very, very uncomfortable and dangerous for them," Erspamer said.

The sounds of war never became quite routine enough to ignore: the distant rumble of artillery fire, the explosions as mines discovered in nearby waters were detonated by allied navies, the eerie sound -like a concussion in the air, one worker described it - when the US battleships fired their huge 16-inch guns.

Occasionally, the workers found, the shooting was at them.

"I remember the Thursday morning we were out getting some booms deployed off Safaniya pier. Three rockets flew over our heads and exploded in the water about 1000 feet (300 meters) off the pier. That got everyone's attention, " Erspamer said.

Satellite photos, the main source of oil-spill location information, showed what appeared to be huge patches of oil up to 160 kilometers (100 miles) long lingering in the northern Gulf. The patches seemed to break up and reform from day to day, like 1 the patterns in a kaleidoscope. ° At one point, weighted plastic sheeting * seemed to be the solution to the problem of the porous seawalls. Ten thousand meters of sheeting - more than six miles -were draped over the outside of the walls. The attempts failed: The water just worked its way up under the plastic.

So the oil-spill team invented a better way - sand berms. With plenty of construction equipment and plenty of sand around, they made breakwaters of sand along each side of the seawalls. They also built sand berms to deflect water around the seawater intakes. Eventually, to everyone's relief, they topped the seawalls themselves with sand so vehicles could drive on them.

Sand proved more durable than booms and much less labor-intensive to maintain. The berms could be built so as to trap as well as deflect oil. Then they became driveways for vacuum trucks to reach the trapped oil, suck it up and recover it.

Saudi Aramco constantly added manpower and equipment to the oil-spill effort. The force grew to a peak of 450 men, 20 vessels, 40 vacuum tank trucks, 35 skimmer boats and 40 pieces of construction equipment.

At last, in late February, the weather calmed and the defenses could be consolidated. Berm construction speeded up, offshore booms were repaired or replaced and new booms were added.

Best of all, very little new oil was coming down from the north. Those dark spots on the satellite photos that had looked like huge patches of oil were apparently caused by large areas of oil sheen that had drifted far from the sources of the spill.

Well into April, however, some 2000 to 3000 barrels of oil a day were still spilling into the Gulf from damaged facilities in Kuwait. The flow was finally stopped in early May.

By the time a Gulf War cease-fire was announced, the heaviest concentrations of oil had slipped south of Tanajib.

By an accident of nature, Manifa Bay and a large, shallow bay called Dawhat al-Dafi, south of Tanajib, were positioned to catch the oil as it moved south. These remote, unspoiled bays trapped several hundred thousand barrels of oil, sparing the remainder of Saudi Arabia's east coast considerable additional environmental injury. The company established about a dozen recovery sites around the bays, in some cases building roads so vacuum trucks could reach oil-impacted areas.

To lessen the damage further, large Aramco skimmer ships were assigned to pick up oil in the open Gulf, each barrel recovered representing one fewer barrel of environmental poison to hit a beach or foul one of the many shallow bays where marine life begins.

Saudi Aramco also participated in efforts to protect wildlife and the environment by distributing protective material and equipment, and by offering its expertise and logistical support to other oil-response teams under the direction of the Saudi Arabian government. Hundreds of Saudi Aramco employees joined the volunteer effort to rescue and clean sea-birds, turtles and other animals.

The whole oil-spill protection campaign - protecting facilities, protecting the environment - relied on resources gathered worldwide. Oil-spill fighting equipment came from Japan, Germany, New Zealand, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and The Netherlands, including more than 32,000 meters (20 miles) of offshore booms, more than 30,000 meters (19 miles) of oil-absorbent booms and 2000 meters (1.24 miles) of bay booms, plus at least 16 skimmers. Twenty-four chartered planes brought the urgent cargoes to Dhahran -including the huge Soviet-built Antonov-124 (See Aramco World, March-April 1991).

By the end of the first week of May, Aramco had recovered some 900,000 barrels of oil from the Gulf. Though its size was never definitively established and its source has never been proved beyond question, the spill had certainly been massive. Yet it had failed to do any industrial damage, or curtail the production on which the allied military effort depended.

Thanks to an all-out effort, Aramco's war within a war had been won.

Tom Pledge, a 15-year veteran with United Press International, has been working in Dhahran as a freelancer for several months. A future article will take up the oil spill's environmental impact.

This article appeared on pages 35-39 of the May/June 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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