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Oil Slick Forces Closure of First Saudi Desalination Plant

February 8, 1991 GMT

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) _ For the first time in the war an oil slick forced Saudi Arabia to shut a desalination plant Friday, and workers rushed to scoop up black crude that fouled more than 60 miles of Saudi coast, officials said.

A Saudi official also announced that the Soviet Union had joined the international effort against the the world’s biggest oil slick, committing three oil skimming vessels to the fight.

Authorities shut the desalting plant at Safaniya on the Saudi coast as a preventive measure before oil entered its intake valves, Saudi’s Meteorological and Environmental Protection Agency announced.

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The plant is run by Saudi Aramco, the oil giant, to provide drinking water for employees living in the area, oil executives said.

A Saudi official said he expected the Safaniya plant to be closed for ″only a few days.″ He said he learned of the decision during a meeting with Saudi Aramco representatives Friday night.

A Saudi Aramco official declined to comment on whether the closure would affect the company’s refineries or other oil installations along the Saudi coast.

The desalination plant at Safaniya was the first reported closed because of oil spilled during the Persian Gulf War.

Allied officials say Iraq has created the world’s biggest oil spill in the gulf, but the crude threatening Safaniya is likely from a smaller spill that may have been caused by U.S. attacks on an Iraqi tanker.

The slick is estimated at 21 million gallons, far smaller than the giant 460 million-gallon spill that remains mostly in Kuwaiti waters, north of the Saudi coast.

Officials fear the oil could force the shutdown of numerous fresh water plants and oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. That could lead to water rationing and a further economic slowdown in a kingdom already burdened by the costs of war.

The world’s biggest desalination plant in the world is in Jubail, 40 miles south of the edge of the slick.

Derek Brown, an environmental specialist at the Bahrain Petroleum Co., said he believed the Safaniya plant was a small one.

Workers, meanwhile, rushed to clean up a thick swath of crude that fouled fertile marine beds along part of Saudi Arabia’s Persian Gulf shore.

Citing a report from a helicopter overflight of the slick Friday, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Paul Milligan said heavy oil was seen stretching 60 miles along the Saudi coast from R’as az Zawr in the south to Safaniya in the north.

The oil was heaviest, he said, at Manifa, a small city that sits on a bay known for its fertile fishing grounds and rich sea beds.

Milligan said a map-reading mistake by Saudi authorities initially placed the spill at 10 miles from Jubail, but aerial photographs showed it to be 30 miles farther away.

Milligan said the slick continued to move southward, buffeted by strong winds from the north.

Predictions about when the slick would hit Jubail were unreliable.

″We’re running at full load,″ said an operator at the Jubail desalination plant. ″No oil is in sight.″

The slick already has come ashore at the Saudi towns of Khafji, Safinaya and Tanajib, killing cormorants and spreading a black goo along the beach.

A spokesman for the Saudi National Commission for Wildlife Protection and Development said 400 to 600 birds taken from about one mile of beaches were drenched in oil and at least 50 had died.

Dozens of miles of oil booms have been stretched around coastal industrial sites in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar.

About 24 ships, led by Norway’s Al-Waasit ship, are mopping up the oil. Milligan said Al-Waasit in seven days had swallowed 1.75 million gallons of oil and water.

David Olsen, an official at the Saudi environmental agency, said the Soviet skimmers would probably arrive in about two weeks, bolstering the international effort against the slick.

The deployment would increase the Soviet presence in the war zone. Moscow has already sent a destroyer, the Admiral Tributs, and an anti-submarine ship to the Gulf of Oman as a sign of support for U.N. coalition forces fighting Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

Milligan said the smaller spill is just an opening act for the world’s biggest slick, allegedly started by Iraqi troops who opened the spigots at an offshore Kuwaiti oil terminal. Iraq claims allied bombing touched off the spill.

The record-breaking slick remains mostly in Kuwaiti waters north of the Saudi coast, he said.

Citing maps made from aerial photographs, Milligan said the ″biggest piece″ of the huge slick measures 70 miles long and 80 miles wide.

″That thing is massive,″ said Walter Vreeland, an environmental adviser to Bahrain’s government. ″I couldn’t even begin to estimate how big it is.″