NEW YORK - The U.N. environment chief warned Thursday that the risk of a massive oil spill in the Red Sea is growing daily, as Yemeni rebels prevent international experts from accessing an old, neglected tanker carrying more than 1 million barrels of crude oil.
"In the event of a fire or an explosion, around 4.8 million people in Yemen and 350,000 in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia could be exposed to harmful levels of pollution within 24 to 36 hours," Inger Andersen, U.N. Environment Program executive director, told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council about the tanker.
"We still do not know the exact condition of the vessel, nor what the best solution would be to deal with the 1.1 million barrels of oil in an aging tanker located in an environmentally sensitive area of the Red Sea," she added.
U.N. officials have been seeking access to the vessel, the FSO Safer, for more than two years to assess its safety, do light repairs and eventually tow it to a safe port to remove the oil. But Houthi rebels controlling the area have repeatedly reneged on promises to allow that to happen.
Most recently, in November, the U.N. believed it had finally reached an agreement with the rebels. But Andersen said that political and logistical obstacles had prevented the mission from deploying.
No maintenance for six years
The 45-year-old tanker remains moored 60 kilometers northwest of the country's main seaport, Hodeida. The vessel has not undergone any maintenance in more than six years, and the U.N. is concerned that it is physically decaying and that flammable gases may be building up in some areas of the vessel.
The U.N. says the FSO Safer has the potential to cause an oil spill four times greater than the catastrophic 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, which involved 257,000 barrels of oil and took several years to clean up.
The U.N. has held intensive but unsuccessful discussions with the Houthis over the past 10 days to try to overcome differences. In the meantime, it is working with partners on contingency plans should the worst happen.
"Even if the response activities were to be initiated immediately after an oil spill, it would take years for the ecosystems and the economies to recover," Andersen cautioned.
Yemen's U.N. envoy accused the rebels of using the situation as a political bargaining chip at great risk to the population.
For its part, the 15-nation Security Council expressed “extreme concern” at the growing risk that the tanker could rupture or explode. Members said they expect the Houthis to facilitate unconditional and safe access for the U.N. assessment mission “without further delay.”
The government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, with the support of Saudi Arabia, has been fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels since 2014 for control of the country. More than seven years of war has pushed the Middle East's poorest country to the brink, creating the largest humanitarian emergency in the world.