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Saddam vs. Mother Earth: Allied fleet ready for Gulf War replay

Friday, April 4, 2003

ABU DHABI Britain and the United States have prepared a fleet of naval vessels to respond to an environmental disaster in the Persian Gulf sparked by the war against Iraq.

In the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq blew up Kuwaiti oil facilities and pumped five million barrels of crude oil into the sea. The Iraqi sabotage caused damage to the Gulf region that lasted for years.

"The Iraqi regime has shown willingness to conduct environmental terrorism by putting oil into the water," Lt. Rick Westler, executive officer of the USS Walnut, said. "They have done it in the past and they may do it again. That is why we are here."

The anti-Iraq coalition has flown in teams and deployed vessels to help prevent and respond to any Iraqi sabotage of the Gulf, Middle East Newsline reported. Officials said among the threat assessments is Iraqi dumping of oil in the sea as well as the sabotage of Gulf Arab oil facilities.

The U.S. Coast Guard has been authorized to organize and plan the environmental mission. At least two vessels have been entrusted with rapid response against any Iraqi environmental attack and another five ships have been held in reserve.

The USS Walnut is a coast guard cutter sent to the Gulf to lead environmental rescue operations. The Walnut is a Juniper-class vessel that measures 225 fleet and has a weight displacement of 2,000 tons. The vessel has a 50-member crew.

The U.S. Navy has contributed the USS Comstock and is also on alert for any Iraqi sabotage strike. The Comstock contains equipment to respond and limit an environmental attack.

"We are designed to be a first responder, which means if there was a massive release of oil we would respond immediately," Westler said. "Once we get to the scene of the spill we have four inflatable barges, which can each hold 25,000 gallons of oil."

The allied operation will be supported by U.S. Coast Guard aircraft. The planes are equipped with radar that can quickly detect oil slicks.

Officials said the Coast Guard has placed buoys in the Gulf with sensors. The sensors send data regarding the direction of the tide that can allow environmental experts to predict where an oil slick is headed.

Westler said the crew of the Walnut has undergone special training to respond to a disaster. He said his crew has never helped clean up an oil slick.

"We were training back in December, which gave us a chance to break out the equipment and use it," Westler said. "We were able to practice skimming oil off the water and even though we have never done it on an actual oil spill, we are more than capable."

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