Microbes could clean up Gulf spill

Tom Curtis:

"Slick Solution: How Microbes Will Clean Up the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill."

That was the headline on an article in the May 25, 2010, online edition of Scientific American. It reflected the consensus of marine scientists and microbiologists who said that oil-eating microbes are the only things that will take care of the spill flowing from BP's Macondo well into the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, they said, these bugs work very slowly. And, the story reported, no one has been able to make the microbes multiply quickly enough to clean things up faster. Moreover, where there are large populations of microbes digesting the huge submerged pools and lakes of oil from the monster spill, scientists fret that they are using up all the oxygen and creating new dead zones in the Gulf.

I am an investigative reporter and not a scientist. But based on what I learned from better-informed scientists more than two decades ago and what I have learned more recently, I suggest that the scientific consensus at best is only half right. It is certainly wrong that no one has been able to stimulate naturally occurring microbes to multiply faster. In fact, a man named James Francis Martin won a patent for a process doing just that in 1959, and several versions of his discovery have been produced in Hondo since 1961 by the Medina Agriculture Products Co., which he co-founded. In Texas alone, a handful of other small businesses produce related enzyme catalysts. Apparently, most marine scientists and microbiologists are also unaware that once stimulated with Martin's enzymatic catalyst, these naturally occurring microbes can produce oxygen in prodigious amounts. This ability also may make them good candidates for attacking and remediating the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, among many other potential uses.

I came by this arcane knowledge following the Exxon Valdez disaster in Prince William Sound after I was assigned by Texas Monthly to figure out what we should use to battle the next big oil spill — which turned out to be BP's. You may read in detail what I reported after a yearlong investigation in the June 1990 magazine. The link is http://www.texasmonthly.com/1990-06-01/feature7.php

My odyssey began with a tip from a source in Washington, D.C., who told me about a little Texas company that wanted to use its special, oil-eating microbes to attack the Alaska spill. This led me to the late Carl Oppenheimer, a professor of microbiology and marine science and two-time Fulbright fellow who had been collecting oil-eating microbes around the globe since 1969. That was the year President Nixon appointed him to the scientific panel investigating the disastrous spill off Santa Barbara, Calif. Oppenheimer teamed up with an outfit that said it had a proprietary "biocatalyst" that could cause his oil-eating microbes to multiply exponentially. Achieving sufficient "biomass" of microbes is the main technological hurdle for those seeking to use them to clean up pollution. The outfit that recruited Oppenheimer had that problem licked, Oppenheimer concluded after he spent two weeks testing its catalyst on his microbes.

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Moreover, Oppenheimer and another scientist - the late Howard G. Applegate, a retired professor of environmental engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso, who had studied related versions of the inventor's "living water," told me of the remarkable ability of microbes treated with these enzymes to produce prodigious amounts of oxygen. This may make them potential candidates for bio-remediating the Gulf's dead zones. More recently, Dudley Burton, chair of environmental studies at California State University Sacramento, observed that the oxygen is provided by a photosynthesizing species of green and blue-green algae, which work synergistically with other bacteria in a natural environment such as seawater to convert energy from the sun into biochemicals that can provide an optimal environment for bacteria. "Adding enzymes," he noted, "advances this process by encouraging the flourish of algae, which in turn encourages the flourish of the other bacteria."

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Perhaps the administration is desperate enough to kick the bureaucratic blocks out of the way and test this material, especially in areas where the oil is already killing things in the wetlands. The oil industry also needs to look at this technology and make its own investment so it will have the tools it will need to deal with any future spills. It appears that some of this material could also treat the Gulf dead zone caused by the production of ethanol by farms up the Mississippi. The EPA needs to clear the way to using this material as soon as possible.

Comments

  1. good post.....I appreciate yor way of writing that make the blog attractive and make reader to hold longer to your blog

    oil spill clean up ma

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