Cleaning up (slowly) in the gulf

June 10, 2010

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It’s no secret that the Transocean oil spill is among the largest man-made environmental disasters of all time. Given the impact, the word spill itself is a huge understatement. Gusher or torrent or catastrophe would be more accurate. An early estimate of 5,000 barrels leaking per day appears to have been wildly understated. To quote a June 9 update from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Web site, “… BP hopes to ramp up the collection rate from 15,000 to 28,000 barrels per day over the next week.” The second-largest petroleum disaster in the U.S., the Exxon Valdez wreck, spilled about 250,000 barrels in total.

Even though BP is far from getting the leak under control, the cleanup efforts have been going on for weeks (almost as long as the oil has been leaking, in fact). We have more than a handful of cleanup measures. We can use skimmers to vacuum it up, absorbents and adsorbents to soak it up, controlled fires to burn it up, and detergents and dispersants to break it up. The effectiveness of each of these depends on the oil’s density, the water temperature, weather conditions, and so on.

My particular favorite oil cleaner? Hydrocarbonoclastic bacteria (HCB). That’s right, bacteria. Considering that petroleum contains compounds known to be toxic, it doesn’t seem possible that some bacteria can digest hydrocarbons, but that’s what it amounts to. Most fabricators use hydraulic equipment and already know that some types of bacteria and fungi thrive in hydraulic systems. Considering the heat and pressure developed in most hydraulic systems, these are some hardy life forms—hence the need for maintaining the hydraulic system’s filtration system and adding a biocide on a regular basis. It turns out that they don't just survive in hydraulic systems; some feed off the hydrocarbons in in hydraulic fluid. In a natural environment, they can digest the components in crude oil.

The Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989; Prince William Sound is both the site of the wreck and a classroom. What have we learned from that cleanup effort? It’s a slow process. Despite our efforts, as well as those of HCB’s, some areas in that region will be contaminated for another 10 years.

And the Deepwater Horizon disaster may have already released 50 times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez did.


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Eric Lundin

Editor
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