Gulf oil spill: Americans pitch their ideas for cleaning it up

Vacuum pumps, oil-eating bacteria, and hair booms are a few of the ideas for dealing with the Gulf oil spill.

By , Correspondent

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    Gulf oil spill: Sun bathers walk near a berm erected to protect homes from oil in Dauphin Island, Ala., Monday. The berm is intended to defend the beach against oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
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From Billy Nungesser’s plan to dredge sand barriers across Louisiana’s southern coast to Kevin Costner’s oil-water separator, many big ideas are being thrown at the ever-growing slicks of oil drifting through the Gulf of Mexico.

Memories of hurricane Katrina are still fresh, and anxieties are building over this new disaster. So thousands of Americans would like to pitch in and help as they did after the 2005 hurricane. But with no easy avenue for volunteering, average citizens, along with many independent scientists and entrepreneurs, are instead weighing in with their own ideas for cleaning up America’s worst-ever environmental disaster.

Since the early days of the Gulf oil spill, BP has operated a hot line at its command center in Houston, which has fielded tens of thousands of calls on containing the blown wellhead and cleaning up the oil. Many callers have complained that they’ve received no follow-up responses from BP. Others say that bureaucratic hurdles are making the process slow.

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BP did not respond to requests for comment. Earlier this month, Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Christopher O’Neil said that federal resources have been added to the command-center hot line, with operators taking calls around the clock. Callers would be receiving faster feedback on their ideas, O’Neil said.

For nearly two months, Frank Pajaujis, a partner at Florida-based Aabaco Environmental, has been in contact with BP and various government agencies, marketing his company’s bio-remediation product: an oil-absorbing material called bagasse. It’s a byproduct of sugar-cane processing and is impregnated with oil-eating bacteria.

“Our product is already [approved by the US Department of Agriculture], and we believe it would be a very useful and effective tool for helping to clean up the spill. But it’s taking awhile to get it approved,” Mr. Pajaujis says. “BP is looking at it, and Louisiana State University is conducting evaluation studies. They have to be cautious, so it is taking some time.”

Bill Tyner, a music producer who lives near Nashville, Tenn., is among the thousands of average citizens who have telephoned their ideas to BP. Concerned about the Gulf spill, he did some research and discovered another oil cleanup-product, called Smart Sponge, which its manufacturer (AbTech Industries) describes as a synthetic fiber that absorbs oil from water and transforms it into a stable solid. Earlier this month, he called BP’s hot line and wrote e-mails to the White House and political consultant James Carville. He hasn’t heard back.

“I just assumed being a little guy that no one would respond, and that’s the way it went,” Mr. Tyner says. “Nothing seems to be working fast enough, and I guess this is my way of voicing frustration.”

He adds, “Back when Katrina hit, we all watched while George Bush – the most powerful man on earth – couldn’t get his administration to respond. Now we have another president from a different party and this unprecedented disaster, but he can’t get his various agencies together to do anything, either. It makes me wonder whether our president really has power or not.”

Every day in New Orleans, WWL – the city’s all-news radio station – fields calls from listeners on how to save Louisiana’s wetlands from the oil. Their silver bullets have ranged from oil-eating bacteria to the dispersion of hay on the slicks to thousands of crab pots filled with oil-absorbent synthetic fibers.

“We get dozens of calls and e-mails every day – from Louisiana, from across the country, from around the world,” says WWL news director Dave Cohen. “Some are from people who just have an idea they want to share; some come from people who have a product they’d like to sell. We try to get some of them on the air, but there’s far more than we could ever use.”

Mr. Costner of Hollywood fame might have a big name, but even he has voiced frustration about getting others to consider his idea. Navigating the system is like “playing a video game that no one can master,” he said last week before the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. The committee held a hearing on the challenges for small businesses in having the government and BP to evaluate their ideas for cleaning up the oil spill.

Costner has invested more than $24 million and has spent 17 years working on portable centrifuge machines that can separate oil from water. BP has acquired 32 of the centrifuges, and last Friday, it began deploying them.

Frustrated with bureaucracy, some well-meaning citizens have taken matters into their own hands, with mixed results. Twenty years ago Tom Copeland, an Alaskan fisherman, helped suck up oil from the Exxon Valdez spill by equipping his boat with a vacuum pump from a sewage hauling truck. Last month, he directly called officials in Plaquemines Parish and told them about it. Parish President Nungesser – who himself has had a number of ideas, including the one about dredging sand barriers – ordered cleanup crews to start using vacuum pumps.

The pumps briefly underwent some controversy regarding inspections, but that was resolved. The National Guard is currently using two barges equipped with vacuum pumps in Plaquemines, removing thousands of gallons of spilled oil. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has ordered 13 more vacuum pumps to be put into operation.

At the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans, a hair salon in the hotel’s spa has collected hundreds of packages of human and animal hair mailed in from around the world. The salon joins dozens of others on the Gulf Coast that are supporting the idea of an environmental group to use natural hair booms to clean up the oil. The group, Matter of Trust in San Francisco, says on its website that hair booms were used to fight the Cosco Busan oil spill on the California coast in 2007. But a number of spill-response experts say that hair booms do not work well, for a variety of reasons.

BP has said it is not accepting donations of hair booms, and thousands of pounds of hair now sit in storage along the Gulf Coast. Matter of Trust did not respond for comment.

Two weeks ago in New Orleans, an ongoing public forum series called PechaKucha Night – referring to the Japanese word for conversation – became a platform for venting about the spill and proposing long-range responses. Before the oil disaster, the event had served as a forum for those rebuilding post-Katrina New Orleans.

At the PechaKucha Night earlier this month, Joe Evans, a partner at the sustainable-design consultancy firm FutureProof, and Bob Tannen, an urban designer and artist, called for making Louisiana’s entire coastline a federally protected area or national forest. “We’re sitting on one of the greatest deltaic environments in the world,” Mr. Evans said. “We have the ability to preserve what’s left and preserve the future, but it requires thinking far into the future.”

Lauren Goldfinch, a toxicologist and forum organizer, spoke about the need to document air quality, health problems, and other effects the spill is having on the region. “At this point, with a relief well seeming to be the only viable permanent solution, the scope of this disaster seems to be beyond individual solutions. So now it’s about preventing a worst-case scenario from happening in the future,” Ms. Goldfinch said. “That means alternative-energy solutions and creating a mind-set of higher standards for protecting the environment.”

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.

IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

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