WHEN the Exxon Valdez disgorged its infamous black cargo on Prince William sound last year, Carl Oppenheimer's very serious offer of oil-eating microbes went unheard in the confusion of the crisis and the inevitable din of snake-oil salesmen hawking magic remedies. This time, the two-time Fulbright fellow and University of Texas scientist has been heard loud and clear.
Since Friday, the State of Texas has been testing Dr. Oppenheimer's special blend of microorganisms on patches of oil from the fire-ravaged tanker Mega Borg. It is the first open-ocean test of bioremediation, the use of natural microbes, to break down the oil, leaving fatty acids that sea life can eat.
Most oil industry and environmental officials say bioremediation is a promising oil cleanup technology.
It was obvious that there is a serious gap in that technology, as Galveston prepared Sunday to defend it's tourist-packed beaches and rich estuaries from the scattered Mega Borg oil slicks headed toward this barrier-island resort.
``We couldn't have done this without the Alaska experience, which showed that we didn't have adequate technology,'' says Blanton Moore, director of agency operations for the Texas Land Commission. ``This is a technology that has been on the shelf and no one was willing to try it,'' he says.
Texas Land Commissioner Gerry Mauro has played heavily on Texas' image of independent mavericks not about to be lassoed by the bureaucratic red tape that prevented Alaska from acting decisively and that he says probably would have prevented the current testing of bioremediation.
The commission started testing Oppenheimer's product last October and jumped at the chance to use the Mega Borg accident for a field test. Mr. Mauro was able to shepherd the plan through approval by the US Coast Guard and federal and state agencies in a matter of days.
Over the weekend, application of the microbes on a small patch of oil provided visual evidence that they were working, Mr. Moore says. Two patches of oil were to be boomed-off - one for microbe tests, the other a control - and tested scientifically to see if the process is actually working chemically and the oil isn't just dispersing. Results of these tests could take several weeks.
Lab tests last October showed that within six hours of application, the bacteria - a mixture of strains collected where they naturally occurred at oil spills in Italy, Norway, Denmark, Antarctica, and Alaska - reduced the concentration of oil by 99 percent in the water and by 65 percent on the water surface.
The microbes are naturally occurring. Bioremediation involves enhancing the populations of microbes through fertilization to increase microbal activity, or by adding concentrated cultures of the organisms themselves.
With more microbes, degradation of oil is faster, reducing a months-long process to a matter of hours, explains Eugene Douglas, president of Alpha Environmental Inc. The Austin, Texas, firm markets Oppenheimer's microbes and has an established business using the microorganisms to unplug stripper oil wells.
Mr. Douglas says that bioremediation is ``the same natural principle as a rotting tree stump ... a process present before man.''
``Our process replaces so many large corporate activities that we have been blocked everywhere,'' Oppenheimer says. His suggestion is that the oil industry was unreceptive to bioremediation because it has a large financial stake in the use of chemical dispersants which along with skimming have been the only means of oil-spill recovery.
But the process is also misunderstood, says Darwin Wright, a special research and development assistant at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). ``It's just a question that hasn't been fully researched,'' he says, so ultimately it's going to have to be a politician who has to take the policy that the risk of using it is less than the risk without it.''
Though a big problem for bioremediation has been a ``jaundiced'' approval system, there are legitimate environmental concerns, says Erik Olson, acting director of environmental quality for the National Wildlife Federation. ``I'm not saying there's a disaster in the making,'' he says, ``but are you changing the local microfauna of an ecosystem, or displacing natural local organisms and having an impact on higher organisms that rely on them?''
Bioremediation using the introduction fertilizers for microbes has been used on the Exxon Valdez oil now on land. But this method has not been successful in getting to oil below the cobbled beach surfaces. Oppenheimer's product and nine others are being considered for testing on this problem in Alaska, says Larry McGeehan, vice president of the National Environmental Technology Application Corporation. NETAC, a subsidiary of the University of Pittsburgh, is working with the EPA to develop new oil-spill products.
The NETAC program was started because the Exxon Valdez spill ``brought out everyone who had magic dust,'' says Dr. McGeehan. Authorities recognized a need for a process to cull the useless products from those that deserve development.