New 'superbug' could take a bite out of waste cleanup problem

It's a microorganism; it's a one-celled marvel; it's ''superbug!''

The company that brought the nation Love Canal now hopes to be able to neutralize poisonous wastes using this microorganism euphemistically called the superbug.

According to research scientists with the Hooker Chemical Company, a subsidiary of the Occidential Chemical Corporation, laboratory tests show that the superbug renders toxic chlorinated hydrocarbons - so prevalent in Love Canal and other dump sites across the country - into harmless water, carbon dioxide, and salt.

Simply put, the superbug is a complex version of the one-celled bacteria commonly found in nature feeding on chemical wastes. What scientists at Hooker's Grand Island Research Center say they have done is ''splice'' this bacteria with chemical elements to make them far more effective consumers of wastes.

The company's experiments on the superbug began two years ago, when, university scientists in the field point out, adverse publicity in the wake of the Love Canal incident forced Hooker into a leadership role in trying to solve the cleanup problem. The incident also brought about new state and federal restrictions on dumping and a need to cut the cost of making existing dumps less toxic.

If all goes according to plan, Hooker's experiments will be expanded into full-scale commercial use by 1984, according to Dr. Norman Alpert, a vice-president of the Occidential Chemical Corporation.

But some prominent scientists are not convinced that the superbug is as cost-effective as Dr. Alpert claims.

One of these scientists is Prof. Robert L. Irvine of the University of Notre Dame's Department of Civil Engineering, who said in an interview that ''quite a lot of work needs to be done'' to determine if this treatment would make sense economically as well as chemically.

But Professor Irvine points out that for years superbugs have been used in the treatment of municipal waste. A fermentation process involving ''naturally occurring bacteria'' - some of them chemically changed to make them more effective or, in a sense, superbugs - degrades the wastes, and purified water is returned to natural streams and rivers. But the use of this kind of microorganism with industrial chemical wastes is still largely in the research stage, ''and Hooker seems to be more interested in it than other companies for obvious reasons,'' Irvine said.

One of the challenges facing the researchers is how to dispose of superbugs once their work is done and the chlorinated hydrocarbons and other toxic substances have been rendered harmless.

''The superbugs thrive and multiply on the stuff,'' said Stanley Sojka, manager of Environmental Research for the Hooker Chemical Company. ''The chemicals are their roast beef.''

But Dr. Sojka contends the superbugs can be eliminated by a simple burning process that will not harm the environment. He added, however, that they could continue to find plenty of employment at existing dump sites or at the industrial chemical plants themselves.

Hooker plans to incorporate its first full-scale superbug treatment process into one of its Niagara Falls chemical manufacturing plants.

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