May 30th, 2010


And another thing... Bio-remediation 101

If they now start doing booming properly and capturing the oil for removal, the fact remains that there is an awful lot of oil already ashore. Proper booming won't make that go away, but it will stop adding to it.

The trouble is, oil doesn't just get on the shore. It gets around everything, and into every crack, crevasses, pore and digestive tract of every stone, stick, plant and animal exposed to it. Spill clean-up will remove the visible - ie top - layers of oil but it doesn't remove all of it. 20 years after the Exxon Valdese it is possible to pick up rocks on the shore and find oil underneath them.

There are two ways to remove this oil: Physically and Bioremediation.

You see the physical removal on the news each night - blokes in hiviz hazmat suits scooping up oily sand and dead animals, and dumping them in drums and bags. And the News reporters going "Ooh! Isn't this AWFUL! Nasty oil! Bad Corporation! BAD! DOOM! GLOOM! WE'RE ALL GUNNA DIE! But the ratings are good."

What a lot of people don't know - talking general public here, not you guys 'cos you are all smarter than me - is that oil will break down naturally due to hydrocarbon-eating bacteria. There are products on the market that are essentially concentrated hydrocarbon lovin' bacteria in handy powder form. The bacteria are naturally occurring, non-genetically modified strains, grown in vats and dried out into an easily dispersible form. I have to point out that these are just concentrated natural microbes, because people think they are some sort of GM, synthetic, unnatural thing from a lab that will migrate from eating all the oil to consuming all life on Earth. These bacteria are already in the environment, but since the natural environment doesn't normally have 80 thousand million barrels of oil floating on it, the bacteria are rare and usually only found where oil naturally bubbles to the surface - places such as Jed Clampet's farm.

I know about this stuff, because I've used it. You might even see it on the news - a 10 second sound bite of a guy in a boat spreading a white powder on the black slick, and the voice-over telling you that experimental material is being used in an environmentally friendly but uninteresting and non-ratings generating way. (Sorry. Is my mistrust of the news showing through?) There are bio-evangalists amateur environmentalists out there who will tell you this bacteria will clean up the oil in under 6 weeks, but Big Oil is suppressing it. They would have you believe the clean up teams only have to skip along the beach like a bunch of hiviz hazmat fairies waiving their magic powder dispensing wands, and the oil vanishes behind them. They might as well dress in pink leotards and tutus, and skip along the beach waving magic wands with glittery stars on the end. It will have the same result.

My point is, bioremediation is not a quick and easy fix. It is a long, drawn-out, fairly labour intensive affair that requires constant monitoring, but it works and is effective, and uses a natural process.

The big questions are: How effective? and How long does it take?

I've been dealing with a company in Sydney that is doing this on a highly contaminated fresh-water site in an old industrial, soon to be residential, area. The old oil-dump landfill site has been undergoing treatment for 24 months, and is still going. The bacteria have cleaned out the oily water and are currently 60cm into the soil lining the pit, and still happily chewing their way through the oily soil. Even though the site is still being treated and monitored, wading birds have started nesting in the reeds on the shore. Three years ago this site looked like the nasty end of Mordor. They couldn't even put an Olympic venue on it, it was that bad. So the answer to How Long Does It Take is, it takes as long as it takes to get rid of the oil. And it works!

But enough of that. How to do it in The Gulf.

Get a bunch of 10,000 gallon tanks, and fit them with aeration systems. Fill the tanks with oily water from the Gulf, start the air compressors and throw in a bunch of bacsocks of every strain of bacteria you can get your hands on - one bacsock per tank. Grow those suckers for a week, then mix together and dump it all into some sort of spraying thing - tanker truck, crop duster, whatever sort of plane was spraying dispersant, whatever. Use a bloke in a boat if you can't get to the fiddly bits. Pick an the area of coast and spray it. Refill the tanks and start growing more culture.

Come back to the coast area a week later, and take samples. Determine which bacteria is thriving, and then re-spray the area with that strain only. Mark the coast off into 1 mile lengths, and repeat this process until you have covered the entire coast. You have to do it this way because the composition of the slick changes due to time in the water, temperature, wave action etc. The composition will favour one bac over the others, so you use that one to treat that area. The bac spray will have to happen once a week, and after a month you will have to test the bac again to see how it's doing. When it starts to die off - and it will when its nutrient hydrocarbon is gone - respray the area with the multi-strain mix and start the process again. The process will take many months but it will give you a functioning Gulf coastline again.

And finally, to be honest, I would pay to see the BP Executives dress in pink leotards and tutus, and skip along the beach waving magic wands with glittery stars on the end. And I'd watch it on the news. It won't help the oil slick in any way whatsoever, but it would be funny.
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Sorry about the last two tl;dr entries. Have a short one:

Last night I tripped over piece of wood in the dark and went for a dive into the wood pile. About the only thing I didn't bash with lumps of wood was my head. The bruises on my elbows, left shoulder, left wrist, ribs, knees and left ankle have mostly stopped hurting. The bruises on the palms of my hands and my right wrist are still quite painful, but not as bad as they were last night. I'm hoping tomorrow will be even better. I tell you what, bruised palms are inconvenient.

Note to self: wait for the sensor light to come on before looking for wood.
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