Is someone covering up the smoke?

Issue 

By Shirley Johnston

As everyone knows, 550 oil wells are burning in Kuwait. Six million barrels of oil — one million tons — are going up in smoke daily, creating a smog so thick that car headlights have to be used during the day, and dropping daytime temperatures by 15° Celsius. The soot falls out as black rain, poisoning water and crops.

In one year, the fires may produce more than half the soot that would be produced by a major nuclear exchange. "This is the most intense burning source, probably in the history of the world", says Joel Levine, a NASA expert on biomass burning.

At the same time, another unknown quantity of smoke is being poured into the atmosphere from burning oil refineries and oil reserves in Iraq, set aflame by US bombing.

These fires burn in an eerie twilight of US government censorship. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers were ordered to withhold satellite images on the Gulf region after the war had ended.

"I can't understand why", Bruce Hicks, a NOAA meteorologist, told a reporter for Scientific American. A NOAA spokesperson said the restrictions might be related to demands for reparations expected to result from the war.

Another possible reason for the ban on satellite images was given by John Cox, an environmental engineer and vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain. Satellite images would reveal that the bombing of Iraqi refineries and oil reserves had "created an appalling smoke cloud" comparable to the one generated by the Iraqi sabotage of Kuwait's oil fields. Cox speculated that the US would lift its restrictions only after the smoke from allied bombing raids had dissipated.

Before the war, the US tried to make light of the possible environmental effects of burning oil fields. Fires in the Gulf region might produce a cloud of pollution, "about as severe as that found on a bad day at the Los Angeles airport". Warnings of possible worldwide climatic effects were dismissed as abusing science to promote an antiwar political agenda.

On January 25, 1991, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory received a memorandum which read in part: "DOE [Department of Energy] Headquarters Public Affairs has requested that all DOE facilities and contractors immediately discontinue any further discussion of war-related research and issues with the media until further notice. The extent of what we are authorized to say about environmental impacts of fires/oil spills in the Middle East follows: 'Most independent studies and experts suggest that the catastrophic predictions in some recent news reports are exaggerated. We are currently reviewing the matter, but these predictions remain speculative and do not warrant any further comment at this time.'"

John Belluardo, a DOE spokesperson in San Francisco, said that the to "muzzle the debate" over the war's environmental impact. It was instituted, he said, because reports of the possible effects of fires and oil spills could "give the Iraqis ideas". Asked why the policy remained in effect after the war's conclusion, Belluardo replied, "We are still in a transition period."

Both Belluardo and Hicks attributed the censorship to the White House. White House spokespersons deny any knowledge of the gag. — Peace PressPegasus