Microbes Helpful in Oil Cleanup, Harmless to Natural Surroundings

TEXAS officials say they plan to put oil-eating bacteria at the center of their oil-spill response plans, despite inconclusive open-sea tests on the effectiveness of the microbes. Limited tests of the bacteria used to help clean up after last month's Mega Borg oil tanker spill showed they do not harm the environment. But the results were not clear as to how much of the decrease in oil could be attributed to the microorganisms.

``We're absolutely convinced that it's the most efficient way to clean up oil and [especially] in Texas where we have a thousand small spills a year we deal with routinely,'' says Garry Mauro, the Texas land commissioner.

Mr. Mauro promoted using the bioremediation method by helping to overcome bureaucratic red tape. The microbes were used on the spill of light crude oil that came from the Norwegian tanker after an onboard explosion June 8 and a subsequent fire.

Microbe test results released last week, as interpreted by Mauro, suggest that the bacteria reduced oil concentrations in some samples by 30 percent. Visual observations, he says, show the microbes reduced the oil.

However, tests by the independent laboratory hired by the state said that because of factors like weathering of the oil, through waves and evaporation, there was no statistical evidence that the microbes alone decreased oil concentrations on the water.

In the first open-ocean test of bioremediation, the state used a special mixture of naturally occurring microbes developed by Alpha Environmental Inc. The concentrated bacteria break down oil, leaving fatty acids that sea life can eat.

In laboratory tests, the product reduced the concentration of oil by 99 percent in the water and by 65 percent on the surface in a period of six hours.

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