Environmental Consequences Of The Gulf War

Excerpts from the Congressional Record, April 16, 1991
By: Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi

Ms. PELOSI. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to call attention to an issue and a situation that has the concern of many of the families in my district who have children, husbands, brothers, and sisters in the Persian Gulf. Mr. Speaker, while agencies and task forces take samples and analyze data to determine the health risks of Saddam Hussein's ecoterrorism, there can be no doubt that U.S. troops stationed in the gulf are being exposed to an unusually high amount of air pollution. The calls I have received from the families of troops in the Persian Gulf from my district are concerned that the troops are not home yet. Some of them have conveyed to their parents that they will not be home until September, after a long, hot summer in the Persian Gulf, and they are very concerned about the atmosphere of the air that they breathe while they are in Kuwait.

Mr. Speaker, thick clouds of black smoke from the well fires have been spewing into Kuwaiti skies for over a month, obscuring the sun with air pollutants estimated at 10 times the amount produced by all the industrial and electric generating plants in the United States combined. Air pollution from oil well fires is so bad that soldiers stationed in the gulf need flashlights to see in the daytime, and the flags that fly over the newly liberated Kuwait are streaked with soot.

The Environmental Protection Agency has detected some air pollutants attributed to the gulf fires halfway around the world at its Mauna Loa station in the Hawaiian Islands.

Larry Flak, the American engineer coordinating fire fighting efforts, says, `We guess about 520 or 530 oil wells are burning, but surveys are still going on.'

Douglas Dockery of the Harvard School of Public Health warns that cancer and cardiovascular disease may increase due to the fires, but that it will be years before we know the full extent of the health risk.

From the ground, however, there is less uncertainty. Said U.S. Sgt. Mike Poss, who is serving in the gulf, `We're not stupid. They say the pollution is no worse than New York City. I have been to New York, and it doesn't look like this.'

Sergenat Poss' remarks were echoed by Mort Lippman of the New York University Medical School, who said, `Nobody has ever been exposed to something like this before.'

Atmospheric pollution on this scale has not occurred in our history. We need to be aggressive in our pursuit of data so that we have a better idea of the long-term effects of the toxics overwhelming the air, land, and water of the gulf region. Some of these pollutants may turn out to be carcinogenic. For our troops we could have another agent orange.

Mr. Speaker, it is imperative that we provide our troops with whatever medical attention they need, now and into the future, to cope with the health effects of exposure to pollution resulting from the gulf war.

We must also increase our commitment to assist in environmental restoration of the gulf area and to protect civilians in the region from Saddam's ecoterrorism.

Mr. Speaker, our colleague, the gentleman from Florida [Mr. Goss] has introduced a resolution condemning Saddam Hussein's ecoterrorism. I thank him for his leadership in keeping this issue before us and also for his leadership in the action he has taken.

Mr. Speaker, as we speak tonight, the gulf itself is surging with oil . Three thousand barrels a day continue to pour into the gulf from offshore oil rigs. This amounts to an Exxon Valdez oil spill every 3 months.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, 4 million barrels have been spilled into the gulf waters, making this the largest oil spill in the history of the world, eight times that of the Exxon Valdez.

Mr. Speaker, the oil has severely damaged the Saudi shrimp fishery, the coral reefs, and the ecosystems that provide vital habitats for endangered sea turtles and marine mammals. Over 100 small islands provide excellent and internationally significant habitat for sea turtle nesting and for migratory birds. The northernmost coral reefs in the world are found in the gulf.

There were many warnings about the possibility of oil spills and other assaults on the environment. When we had the debate on the issue of sanctions before this body, these issues were brought before the House of Representatives in the course of that debate. It was not restricted to our debate.

Headlines across the country warned: `War in the Gulf, an Environmental Perspective,' `Wars and Environmental Implications Go Beyond a Simple Desert Storm,' `Targeting the Environment: A Casualty No One is Counting--The Earth,' `Vital Saudi Water Plant Prepares for Oil Slick,' `Environmental Disaster Feared in Persian Gulf,' `The Hidden Casualties: The Environmental Consequences of the Gulf Conflict,' `Experts Warn of Global Fallout from Warfare.' `Damage of Oil Across the Globe.' `Saddam Hussein Could Respond to Attack by Unleashing a Massive Oil Spill in Gulf,' and well he did. `Waging War on the Earth.'

This was a predictable consequence of war. Unfortunately, we were dealing with someone who had no regard for human life, and no regard for the environment, in the person of Saddam Hussein. But now we have to deal wtih the consequences of his ecoterrorism.

Yet, despite these warnings, much of the advance planning needed to address this crisis was nonexistent.

Booms arrived after the oil slick was detected; dikes were not constructed in time to prevent marine areas from being flooded with oil ; and critical equipment needs were not addressed early on.

Today, there is still no around-the-clock monitoring of the air quality in Kuwait.

EPA has conducted a preliminary study and issued its report on air quality. At this time, EPA reports that there is no danger to human health, although they admit that the jury is still out.

This study is inadequate for determining the immediate, as well as longer term effects of breathing the high sulfur and nitrogen content in the air.

This is the concern of the parents and families of the troops in the Persian Gulf from my district, and, I have learned, from the districts of some Members in the House who have also heard from their constituents on this point.

The apparatus for monitoring the area is still not in place. EPA has plans for more complete monitoring, but the pace to accomplish this basic first step has been slow, due partly to Saudi Government delays.

No research has been done on possible damage to the food chain.

Generally, there has been a lack of coordination, a lack of equipment, and a lack of initiative by the U.S. Government to respond to this serious environmental situation.


There must be a stronger international environmental code for war, including enforcement mechanisms to be applied against violating nations.

Sophisticated technology has increased the range, speed, and accuracy of war weapons. During the gulf war, oil wells , refiners and chemical plants, and nuclear facilities were bombed, with the potential for emitting poisonous gases into the atmosphere. These pollutants may be detected in soil, ground water, and other areas of the environment for years.

The environment cannot be held hostage; war on the environment is unacceptable.

Because mined oil fields are preventing firefighters from approaching some of the oil fires, military strategies must be put in place to ensure that the mines are cleaned as quickly as possible from the fire areas.

Air pollution cannot be controlled without this strong effort to sweep the area free of mines.

To address the immediate crisis, Congress must take actions.

I have called upon the Subcommittee on International Organizations to hold hearings on the environmental effects of the gulf war. Chairman Yatron has agreed to hold hearings next week which will address the issue.

I might add that on his own, the gentleman from Pennsylvania [Mr. Yatron] has demonstrated great leadership on this subject. Were it not for him, we would not have the opportunity next week for us to gain the important testimony that is necessary for us to proceed.

Congressman Gilman and I are circulating a letter to the President urging him to take quick action to implement section 309 of the dire emergency supplemental for fiscal year 1991. The bill encourages the administration to work toward the creation of an international agreement for environmental monitoring, assessment, remediation and restoration in the Persian Gulf region.

I invite Members to join the gentleman from New York [Mr. Gilman], along with many other Members in the House, and me, in signing this letter to the President.

Because of the unique position of the United Nations Environmental Programme [UNEP] to help in this crisis, Congress should help by approving a voluntary appropriation to the UNEP `special environmental fund' used to address the environmental problems created by the gulf war.

Mr. Speaker, the United States, in conjunction with its coalition partners, has an opportunity to make an important difference. We can and must step up to the task. Our soldiers need medical attention to ensure their future well-being; the people of the Persian gulf need our help to stave off the health risks and economic hardship that will follow this environmental crisis; and the world community needs an international code of conduct that will strongly discourage future military aggressors from using environmental destruction as a weapon of war.

I would even go further than that, than discourage, but would strongly punish future military aggressors from using environmental destruction as a weapon of war.

Mr. Speaker, much has been said in the press in the last week and a half and in other areas of debate about the Kurdish situation, and indeed it is a sin against humanity to see what is happening there and our inability to effectively deal with it. But some leadership is being taken on that now, and we must do everything we can to meet the needs of the Kurds who are fleeing Iraq.

Mr. Speaker, while we are doing that, we must also pay attention to the environmental damage which our troops are being exposed to, as well as the other people who live in the region. To do anything less, to ignore what is happening to the Kurdish people and to ignore the damage to the environment, is to dishonor the God who made them all.

Mr. Speaker, I yield back the balance of my time.

Back to top

Front Page