Oil Fires (Kuwait)

Part of Petition – in the House of Commons at 10:28 pm on 14th May 1991.

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Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East 10:28 pm, 14th May 1991

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for initiating this Adjournment debate. The grim situation in Kuwait has not disappeared from the public mind in Britain or in the rest of the world.

The scale of Saddam Hussein's vandalism is vast. In addition to the oil fires, serious damage has been deliberately targeted at key oil and gas establishments. Saddam Hussein and his destruction squads deliberately set out to destroy the wells and thus delay Kuwait's ability to produce oil and processed products in refineries, at petrochemical plants and power stations. Saddam Hussein ordered the systematic mining and booby-trapping of the surroundings of the blazing oil wells. That ordnance must be cleared before well control work commences. Shifting sands and lakes of oil cover unexploded mines. All this makes it difficult to estimate how long restoration work will take.

In responding to this man-made disaster, the Government are continuing the commitment that they made, with the other allies, to free Kuwait through Operation Desert Storm. The allies responded then to the Kuwaitis' appeal for help against Iraqi aggression. The Gulf oil fires are a deplorable consequence of that aggression, and the Kuwaitis have again appealed to the international community for assistance. I hope to persuade the hon. Gentleman that the commitment to help Kuwait now is just as strong.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are offering the Kuwaitis help to tackle the fires and block off the flows of oil. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister took a strong lead with his early visit to Kuwait soon after the liberation of that country, with direct offers of help to the Crown Prince. This has been followed up with a visit by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Secretary of State for the Environment, who is currently in Kuwait. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy took the latest mission of business men to Kuwait on 26 April 1991 to give United Kingdom proposals his personal backing, and he is confident that British companies will obtain major contracts.

Bringing the fires under control is taking much longer than any of us would like. However, I think that we are all aware that the oil industry has never had to face a disaster on such a scale with, initially, more than 600 burning or leaking oil wells. Many methods have to be used—and, indeed, new ones developed—to bring the tragedy to a close as soon as possible.

The Kuwait authorities, in the first instance, have relied on the historically successful well control companies from North America, such as Red Adair and Boots and Coots, to fight the oil well fires. We can all understand why the Kuwaitis did that. There has been no opportunity to develop a significant UK capability because of the very low number of blow-outs and fires in the UK compared with North America. However, there are so many wild wells in Kuwait that the Kuwaitis have appealed for international help, and British companies have seen an opportunity to develop their technology and experience.

It is in response to that appeal that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy led the business mission to Kuwait last month, and I am very pleased to report that British companies are now getting major contracts. Indeed, the Kuwaiti British Fire Group, a consortium including AMEC, Taylor Woodrow and Wimpey, has led the way with an announcement today of receipt of a letter of intent for a major contract to tackle the oil well fires.

The KBFG has to mobilise its team in Kuwait within three days of agreement of the final contract conditions and funding arrangements, and then it has a further 21 days to assess damage to the wells and produce a detailed report to the Kuwait Oil company. It is hoped to begin the practical process of extinguishing fires once its survey and report are complete and agreement has been reached with Kuwait Oil on a plan of action. The survey will give the KBFG the opportunity to examine in detail each individual well and decide upon the best method of extinguishing the fires and controlling the oil flow. In addition to traditional means of well capping and relief well drilling, it is considering a number of innovative alternative techniques, in liaison with Kuwait Oil.

The KBFG will be sending out a field team of 18 to undertake the initial survey work. When the survey is completed it will be in a better position to assess the overall numbers of people required for the oilfield rehabilitation project. In addition to the enormous resource base offered by AMEC, Taylor Woodrow and Wimpey, the KBFG will draw on the resources of other international companies such as BP for technical support, Royal Ordnance for its skills in dealing with explosives and mine clearance, and others. The KBFG is equally supported by AMEC, Taylor Woodrow and Wimpey with a three-man executive board co-ordinating the project. The project's second phase is expected to be worth many millions of dollars.

The KBFG survey will be based just north of Kuwait, close to the Sabriyah oil field. However, as part of the survey it will assess the most suitable site for a large-scale encampment that best facilitates the oil field rehabilitation programme. This contract is good news all round—good news for the Kuwaitis as they fight to control the fires, good news for the KBFG consortium, and good news for other British companies bidding to offer help to Kuwait. I am sure hon. Members will join me in wishing the Kuwaitis and KBFG every success.

AMEC, one of the KBFG partners, has also been involved with Biwater Ltd. in the refurbishment of the old British Army married quarters at Fahaleel, south of Kuwait City. This base will provide accommodation to attract mainly British firms and their staff. Two hundred beds in single rooms are becoming available at the aptly named BRIT camp—short for British reconstruction implementation team. Both the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Engineers have been involved in making the campsite safe and providing it with transport facilities. Full information on the camp has been sent to 370 companies which have expressed a written interest.

Of course, the KBFG contract comes only a month after Royal Ordnance obtained a major contract from the Kuwait Ministry of Defence for battle area and explosive dump clearance. The contract covers a large proportion of Kuwait, both around population centres and around oil wells. Clearance of the war zones will allow the environmental clean-up to proceed safely. This was "contract No. 1", as the Kuwaitis term it—the first signed with a British company. The KBFG's is the second. The substantial Royal Ordnance contract will go well into 1992. It is another concrete example of the support that British firms are giving to Kuwait, continued today by the KBFG.

Another example of United Kingdom assistance to the Kuwaitis, and one in which, I know, the hon. Member for Linlithgow has taken great interest, is the involvement of the Royal Engineers in dealing with the aftermath of the invasion. The engineers have had no direct involvement in fighting oil fires, but assistance and advice has been provided on the disposal of unexploded ordnance by Royal Engineers personnel in Kuwait. In addition, the Royal Engineers have given safety briefings and have produced maps showing danger areas and leaflets giving safety advice. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Royal Engineers do not have any equipment specifically designed to extinguish oil fires. Nor are Royal Engineers personnel trained in the very specialised techniques required. However, they have standard equipment—for example, bulldozers, cranes and fork lift trucks—which can be of some use.

Similarly, short-notice but none the less invaluable assistance has been provided in the restoration of power to the Kuwaitis, when a combination of British service men and British Electricity International were involved.

On the question of health, I am well aware that the hon. Gentleman was keen to receive a Government view on the health risks associated with the indigenous Kuwaiti population as well of those expatriates directly involved in trying to extinguish the dreadful oil well fires. On 9 May, the hon. Gentleman draw that matter to the attention of the Leader of the House and today I have obtained information which I hope will be of assistance to the hon. Gentleman.

I am advised by the Department of Health that close to burning oil wells, high concentrations of toxic irritants, including smoke, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide, will be produced. They may present serious problems to those involved in fire fighting operations.

The smoke is likely to be an irritant, although its activity in this regard will depend on its exact composition. Simple masks will reduce the amount of smoke inhaled. Because crude oil is burning, the presence of organic compounds, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as the hon. Gentleman said, should be anticipated. However, possible carcinogenic effects would be related to long-term cumulative exposures; short intermittent exposures from the fires would not be expected to add perceptibly to such risks, and would be negligible compared with risks of burns, explosions or traumatic injury while actually fire fighting.

Exposure to carbon monoxide in the smoke plume could lead to fatigue and some impairment of performance of the tasks in hand, but in the open-air conditions of the fires, exposures are unlikely to be sufficient to cause concern.

Whilst I do not have all the details, I am advised that sulphur dioxide is an irritant and in high concentrations may trigger an attack of bronchospasm in asthmatic people. Asthmatic attacks may be precipitated at sulphur dioxide concentration of about 2,500 mcg per cu m. Asthmatics who develop an attack as a result of exposure would require medical treatment. Some non-asthmatics could experience airway irritation and coughing. Peak sulphur dioxide concentrations of 2,700 mcg per cu m have been measured in the plume 100 km downwind from the source. If this information is reliable, concentration closer to the source could be higher than that, and people in that area could be exposed to high concentrations of sulphur dioxide.

Some oil wells which were blown up but not burning were reported to be producing large quantities of hydrogen sulphide. That is a very toxic gas and every effort should be made to eliminate exposure to it. At low concentrations, the characteristic smell of rotten eggs and the accompanying eye irritation will be noticed. Higher concentrations cause loss of the sense of smell and pulmonary damage, and damage to the nervous system may follow rapidly. This problem has been dealt with by setting such remaining wells alight. Although it is highly odorous and has acute toxic properties, hydrogen sulphide has not been reported to have carcinogenic effects.

Further away from the fires, the concentrations of smoke and toxic gases will fall but, as yet, no clear information on actual ground level concentrations has appeared. It seems unlikely from what is known that there will be long-term effects, but in the absence of satisfactory data we cannot be certain of this; nor is it possible, therefore, to make any definitive statement.

Although there have been theoretical levels of ozone and nitrogen dioxide at ground level of the order of 200 to 300 parts per billion measurements in the plume have been substantially lower. Concentrations of below 300 parts per billion of ozone or nitrogen dioxide do not pose a major danger to health, although some individuals taking exercise out of doors may experience coughing and discomfort on taking deep breath. Effects may be limited by reducing exposure and limiting exercise out of doors.

Experts currently in the area should be well aware of those problems and should have the necessary protective equipment, including closed-circuit breathing apparatus for use if circumstances demand it.

I hope that the hon. Member for Linlithgow will agree that this comprehensive statement will be helpful in responding to him.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the important question of the environmental effects of the Gulf crisis. I know that he and Dr. Nigel Downing, the distinguished maritime biologist, met my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment to discuss his concerns about the effect of oil spills and the Iraqi occupation of coral islands in the north of the Gulf. My hon. Friend accepted the importance of the islands and summarised the help that the Department of the Environment have been able to offer Dr. Downing, such as assistance with flights and contacts in the Gulf states.

I am aware also that the Kuwaitis are concerned about the threat to animal life from the smoke plume. Both the Saudi National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development and our own natural history museum have taken an interest in the environmental problems in Kuwait, in particular the case of the offshore coral islands in the Gulf. I am sure that my hon. Friend will continue to provide Dr. Downing and other environmental authorities with any assistance that his Department can provide.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow mentioned Bechtel, which is a large establishment with a strong commitment to the United Kingdom. It employs 1,200 staff, 600 of whom are employed abroad, and its responsibilities include the middle east. About 100 of its staff were held hostage in Iraq, where it had a contract, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

Before the land war started for the liberation of Kuwait, the London office of the Kuwait Oil Company invited Bechtel to provide a back-up service of fire-fighting teams from north America, which were to be employed by KOC directly. Bechtel have, therefore, been responsible for all the support services required, including the provision of water, construction plant, vehicles, accommodation and personnel. After a slow start, which was understandable given the conditions prevailing in the aftermath of war, and the regrettably well targeted Iraqi sabotage, steady progress has been made, with some 90 wells extinguished and capped. Water supplies are now reported to be adequate to support the fire- fighting teams. I understand that Bechtel now has in Kuwait 200 staff controlled from its London office, with a further 100 expected soon.

The Kuwaiti authorities understandably want to extinguish and cap more wells more quickly and have invited groups other than the north American fire fighters to supplement their needs. I am pleased to note that there is British involvement, once again, with the British Kuwait Fire Group offering a turnkey contract. I welcome all efforts from the United Kingdom to assist Kuwait to overcome its problems.

I revert to my earlier comments on our overall reconstruction programme. There is no doubt that our performance has made a good impression on the Kuwaitis.

I shall respond to the meteorological issues raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow as soon as possible in writing.

This country played a vital role in the liberation of Kuwait from the terror of Saddam Hussein, a terror which has left its environmental scar on that nation. We shall continue to play a leading role in the reconstruction of Kuwait, and can be justly proud of our efforts so far.