Last week in the Gulf of Mexico, actor Kevin Costner sparked headlines when he unveiled a device that appears to do a fine job of cleaning oil out of water. Some commentators seized the opportunity to make “Waterworld” jokes, but BP Plc took his machine seriously enough to be testing it this week.
“This is why Costner is so passionate about it,” said fellow actor Stephen Baldwin on the telephone. “Because it really works.” Baldwin, who is producing-directing a documentary about the oil catastrophe titled “Will to Drill,” filmed the demonstration.
Costner has spent $24 million of his own cash over the past 15 years to finance development of the device, which uses centrifugal force to spin the crude out of the water.
Estimating the size of the slick has been problematic, not least because the often-cited “5000 barrels a day” gushing from the sea floor might be low-balling the actual figure by 90,000 barrels, according to congressional testimony heard last week.
By now, some 54,096 square miles, nearly a quarter of federal waters in the Gulf, are closed to fishing.
Yesterday, BP engineers were readying robotic submarines armed with 50,000 barrels of dense mud to stanch the flow, a maneuver they are calling “top kill.”
So far BP has focused on three offshore cleanup strategies: skimming the oil, burning it on site, or dowsing it with hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants to hasten its breakdown.
As results have been mixed at best, the company invited the public to submit suggestions, and has heard from more than 23,500 people.
“Several hundred passed first muster,” says company spokesman Robert Wine from London. “They all have merit, to some extent. They have certainly been useful in helping us come up with ideas with all parts of the response.”
One proposal comes from Darryl Carpenter, vice president of CW Roberts Contracting of Tallahassee, Florida and subcontractor Otis Goodson. Their exceedingly simple method to soak up oil involves spreading hay over the slick, then gathering up the mess using aquatic weed harvesters at sea or rakes on the beach.
“We have not heard from BP,” says Carpenter. “All’s we really want is a chance to see if it works or not.”
Although the oil company hasn’t responded, the viewing public has: The contractors’ YouTube demonstration -- showing large bowls filled with water, oil and hay -- is approaching 1.5 million views. A second video on how to disperse hay over the sea is being readied.
Matter of Trust, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, is a conduit for tons of donated hair, fur and feathers from around the world.
The materials are stuffed into nylon stockings (50,000 pairs donated by Hanes) and linked together to form naturally absorbent booms. BP, which had originally reached out to the group, now says thanks but no thanks.
“BP’s public affairs told us they have enough of their own boom,” says Matter of Trust president Lisa Gautier. Her product -- at the moment accumulating in 19 storage facilities around the Gulf -- is available for government hazardous-materials teams, when they are ready to use it.
Fluidotecnica Sanseverino in Bari, Italy, produces an oil-separation device called Oilsep CC Ecology that, like the Costner and other devices, uses no chemical additives.
The three-year-old firm has produced a dozen machines, now being used by Fiat SpA, Robert Bosch GmbH and other companies. Owner Michele Sanseverino says he hasn’t received a response from BP.
“It looks like BP doesn’t want to respond to those who want to help,” he told Bloomberg by telephone. “It makes us angry to have a solution that could keep the situation under control and that they don’t want to listen.”
The governor of Puglia, Nichi Vendola, even wrote a letter to Barack Obama on Sanseverino’s behalf, promising the U.S. president that Pugliese mechanics would manufacture enough of the machines to get the job done.
The U.S. government itself has received offers of help from Canada, Croatia, France, South Korea and other countries, as well as from the United Nations. So far, the U.S. has expressed thanks, but hasn’t accepted outside assistance.
It seems that everyone wants to help.
Even I am fielding cleanup suggestions from readers. “Crude oil floats,” writes Mark Sowage of Seattle, Washington. “BAG IT.” He describes a not-crazy idea involving tarps, belts and fishing nets. He also sent a hand-drawn pipe-cinching design, and has submitted both ideas to BP. Like many before him, he hasn’t heard back.
I have a suggestion for BP -- and the U.S. government. Both should welcome and try every proposal, offer of help and cocktail-napkin drawing they receive. With the oil leak so out of control that we can’t even estimate the rate at which it is growing, now might be the time for desperate measures -- all of them.
To submit your ideas, go to the website here or here.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)