An important capability put in place during Operation Iraqi Freedom by the Navy helped ensure that the military could fight the enemy, head off a potential environmental disaster and clear the way for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Fortunately, it never had to be used. But if Saddam Hussein's forces had engaged in a deliberate act of environmental terrorism by destroying Iraq's offshore oil terminal platforms, people and equipment were in place to immediately undertake a major anti-pollution effort.
Although anti-pollution work has long been an area of expertise for the divers, engineers and technicians who work under the Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV), the onset of hostilities in Iraq this spring marked the first time anti-pollution assets were mobilized and deployed on a Navy ship in the battle space during offensive combat operations.
Destruction of the oil platforms and the release of millions of barrels of oil was an ominous possibility for the Navy for several reasons. For one thing, such a disaster would hamper efforts to locate and neutralize floating contact mines. For another, it would obstruct plans to bring in humanitarian assistance to the port at Umm Qasr. Finally, it would cripple the desalination plants that people in the region depend on for their water.
The two platforms at issue, Khawar Al Amaya Offshore Terminal (KAAOT) and Mina Al Bakr Offshore Terminal (MABOT), were about 100 miles from Umm Qasr. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians blew up KAAOT, with devastating impact on the environment.
MABOT is currently active, and was the sole loading point for oil companies taking part in the United Nations-sponsored Oil for Food program. MABOT is capable of discharging 1.6 million barrels of oil a day, and in the absence of pumping maintains a standing volume of 800,000 barrels. A single day's discharge from MABOT resulting from an act of environmental terrorism would be 12 times greater than the total discharge from the Exxon Valdez.
The challenge for SUPSALV was how to stop the flow of a huge discharge if the terminals were targeted. Its mission was to identify the necessary assets, get the gear on-scene to do skimming operations and portable storage, and back up local desalination plants so that they could continue to pump.
The in-theater operations were run by SUPSALV's, Jim "Doc" Ruth, who was assigned as the on-scene technical advisor to Commander, Task Force (CTF) 56 for pollution response and salvage operations. SUPSALV's contractor, GPC, began assembling the necessary equipment and operators in February for deployment to the Northern Arabian Gulf (NAG) via nine C-5 Galaxy transport jets. The 500-plus short tons of equipment included three class-five skimmer systems and more than seven miles of boom.
The boom was not the usual six-inch-diameter boom normally seen in harbors, but instead a 42-inch-diameter open ocean containment boom capable of being deployed in the NAG. Ruth personally escorted the gear to USS Comstock (LSD 45), using the force protection personnel assigned to him, and requested the Army to allow the equipment to be moved from Kuwait International Airport to the Port of Mina ash Shu'aybah.
This marked the first time oil pollution equipment and contract operators were deployed aboard a Navy vessel during offensive operations in the combat zone to counter an intentional act of environmental terrorism. The gear was loaded into and deployed from Comstock's well deck. Jimmy Johnson, a retired master chief petty officer and master diver, led the contractor group, which was augmented by eight members from the Coast Guard's National Strike Team. The SUPSALV/contractor/Coast Guard team stood up as the Marine Emergency Response Organization (MERO) under CTF 56.
Fortunately, it was never called upon to perform the mission for which it was intended, but it did provide the fleet with the capability to respond to an act of environmental terrorism. Special Operations forces seized the offshore platforms during the opening hours of the war and removed the explosives. Special Operations forces seized the offshore platforms and secured the shore based manifold, placing the platforms and the pipeline under the control of the U.S.-led coalition.
"Prior to offensive operations beginning, we were praying that this would just be a large logistical exercise," says Ruth. "But we gained some valuable experience. We went through the logistical challenge of getting equipment on-scene to support the battle plan. And we successfully put contractor equipment and personnel onboard a Navy ship in support of combat operations. We were ready for a mission that, fortunately, never happened."