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While Kuwait Burns, Foreigners Try to Take on Texans With PM-Gulf Rdp, Bjt

May 11, 1991

AHMADI, Kuwait (AP) _ A month after the Kuwaiti government promised to let other countries help halt hundreds of oil well fires, four North American firms still toil alone on a relatively small part of a big disaster.

There are no high-powered hoses, heavy cranes or hardy Texans on the vast majority of burning fields throughout Kuwait, where black skies and blazing gushers have blended into the scenery.

While Americans and Kuwaitis trade jabs over the slow march, foreigners complain that they’re being shut out of the world’s biggest firefighting job.

″The world’s best firemen should be here,″ said Ernst Achilles, a German expert who helped the Soviets contain the fire at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

″I went to see an oil field in the north and there was nobody working on it,″ he added. ″Nothing, it’s just been burning for two months.″

Red Adair Co., Boots and Coots Co. and Wild Well Control Co. of Texas, and Safety Boss of Canada, have the sole contract to put out Kuwaiti oil fires.

They have focused their efforts on one small section of the huge Greater Burgan Oil Field, which wraps around this oil town, the headquarters of the Kuwait Oil Co. and the firefighting firms.

Vast fields to the south, west and the north also are burning.

Achilles said the American firms ″are very good. But the job is too big for them.″

″They won the war, and they want to put out the fires. They don’t want competition. But we are not competition. We are their friends. We want to stop the blazes as firemen, not as countries,″ Achilles said.

Achilles, an engineer and architect who worked for 30 years as the Frankfurt fire chief, was part of a German parliamentary delegation to Kuwait this week to offer firefighting assistance.

Last month, Kuwaiti Oil Minister Rasheed al-Amiri said he was going to hire companies to help speed up the firefighting process, which would take more than a year at the current rate.

Since then, British, Chinese, Soviet and Iranian companies have trooped into Kuwait with their own ideas for containing and capping the roaring fields of fire, said Ali Murad, spokesman for the Kuwait Oil Co.

″But what’s going on, I don’t know,″ he said.

A Kuwait Oil Co. executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the state-owned company has been inundated with ideas, but said would-be contractors lack experience, are asking too much, or are offering unsound, unproven methods for capping the wells.

Achilles is the inventor of a liquid with the viscosity of water that turns to foam when it comes in contact with fire. He said he flew to Moscow and supplied the advice and technique - using concrete and his foam - that contained the Chernobyl fire.

In Kuwait, Achilles said the foam could be used along with a concrete chimney placed atop a burning oil well to allow people to work closer to the well and eventually cap it.

He said the Kuwaitis were receptive to his ideas. ″They believe that the Americans’ technique is not the very latest technology,″ he said.

Larry Flak, a Houston oil engineer who is coordinating the firefighting effort, scoffed at the variety of ideas.

″A lot of these guys have never put out oil wells,″ he said. ″They don’t know how to do it.″

He said the four North American firms had capped 96 of 630 burning or spewing wells as of Friday. But the firms have concentrated on those considered the easiest to extinguish.

The American-led effort has been fraught with problems and complaints.

Firefighters have been critical of the Bechtel Group Inc., the huge U.S. construction and engineering firm that is providing supplies and materials needed to put out the fires.

The Kuwait Oil official contended Bechtel was way off on its initial assessments of what supplies would be needed.

″We wasted millions of dollars because of Bechtel,″ said the official.

Tom Murphy, resident manager of the Bechtel project, said the company could not comment, but said there was a lot of ″misinformation″ about the project.

A Bechtel planning engineer, speaking on condition of anonymity, blamed disagreements among Kuwaiti oil officials for delays in getting supplies to firefighters.

Kuwaiti officials believe they are losing about 6 million barrels of oil daily, or more than $100 million. British scientists said the figure was probably closer to 2 million barrels.

The Iraqi troops sabotaged most of the wells in the closing days of the war and effectively shut down the wealthy nation’s oil production.

The Kuwait Oil official said it was possible that very limited production could begin within two weeks to meet some domestic energy needs.

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