EOD teams help secure Iraqi oil wells

By David Josar, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Monday, March 31, 2003

RUMAILA OIL FIELD, Iraq — Marine and Navy explosive ordnance disposal experts are continuing to ensure that roughly 1,400 oil wells in southern Iraq have not been rigged for explosives by fleeing Iraqi soldiers.

So far, EOD experts say they have found very few of the wells damaged or booby-trapped, despite ominous warnings from top U.S. officials that the oil fields, which will be crucial to providing funds for rebuilding Iraq, had been wired for destruction.

“I don’t really know why [there weren’t more booby traps],” said Marine Maj. Jorge Lizarralde, the officer in charge of the teams that are methodically working their way through the oil fields. The field is roughly the size of the state of New Jersey, and Lizarralde’s crews are about half done. “It’s not hard to do if you know what you’re doing.”

Lizarralde said no booby traps were found and only two wells were discovered with “fire wire and detonators.” For some reason, he said, the explosives were unsuccessful.

Coalition forces found just nine fires and only seven wells were ignited. The other two blazes were at small utility buildings.

On Saturday, just three wells were still been burning, and by the end of the day one of those was extinguished.

By comparison, the Iraqi military ignited 700 wells when fleeing Kuwait in 1991.

The EOD teams are moving in before the firefighting and engineering teams, Lizarralde said, and they also scan the area for any land mines. Lizarralde said his crews have found only a handful of mines, which were Italian- or Czech-made. He could not determine when they had been placed, he said.

Helping control the situation are roughly 100 soldiers attached to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Army Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Southwestern Division, who was at the scene of the fires Saturday.

Most of the soldiers are reservists who had their names culled from individuals who already were working in the oil industry, Crear said.

“We got some real experts,” he said.

Troop numbers are expected to increase in coming weeks, he added.

Lizarralde and Crear said there have been no injuries as they have secured the oil fields, but one Marine was killed when coalition troops initially swept through the area and then continued to push through to the north.

The oil fields are visible from Kuwait across the demilitarized zone.

At times the fires, which are actually a burning mixture of oil and natural gas, take on a surreal appearance as the flames appear as twister-clouds and emit a sound comparable to fiercely blowing wind.

As EOD personnel, engineers and security forces provided by U.S and British forces watched the wells, hundreds of camels passed the searing heat and appeared unfazed.

Nearly all the work to put out the fires is being done by a Kuwaiti oil company and Boots and Coots International Well Control, a Houston-based company that is a subsidiary of Kellogg Brown & Root. Kellogg Brown & Root is a subsidiary of Halliburton.

Putting out the burning wells, said Brian Krause, who heads the firefighting effort, is relatively easy.

As the fire is put out with water, a geyser of oil spouts into the air, staining the surrounding sand. Then a dozen red-suited Boots & Coots workers use a long crane attached to a bulldozer to place a metal “stinger” into the well. The stinger is a tapered metal rod with a hole inside used to pump specially prepared mud to block the flow of oil.

“The fire is the least of the problems,” Krause said. “We’ve got to get that genie back in the bottle … rope, old golf balls, sand, anything.”

If work crews can’t stop the flow of oil, then the teams will reignite the well. “It’s better that the pollution burn off than it spill into the ground,” Krause said.

The Rumaila field near the Kuwaiti border is one of Iraq’s largest, and military officials have said they hope to have it resume oil exports in three months.