BP Plc has received almost 35,000 ideas in just over a month on how best to clean up millions of gallons of oil from the biggest spill in U.S. history. So far, only four have made it into testing.
That has people like Ken Griffin, of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and James Reindl, of New York, frustrated. Both have companies that specialize in oil clean-up products they say are more efficient or less toxic than what’s in use in the Gulf. Both contacted BP through its online suggestion box to offer help. Griffin’s company received a form letter in the last few days saying its product was being considered, about one month after the idea was submitted. Reindl has heard nothing, he said.
“We think we have something to contribute,” Griffin said in a telephone interview. “It’s just not at all clear what the chain of command is down there.”
The spill began after an April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig, which London-based BP leases from Switzerland’s Transocean Ltd. The blast killed 11 and triggered leaks that, according to a government panel, spew an estimated 12,000 barrels to 19,000 barrels of oil a day into the ocean.
The suggestions gathered through unsolicited phone calls and the Deepwater Horizon Response Web site, run jointly by BP and the U.S. government, are fielded by 70 workers at a center the company set up. They are then vetted by 43 engineers from BP, the Coast Guard and other U.S. agencies, according to Graham MacEwen, a BP spokesman.
If the ideas -- which range from soaking the oil up with human hair to oil-eating microbes -- are initially seen as practical and don’t overlap with proposals already being explored, they are sent to smaller teams of engineers to see if and how they can be applied, MacEwen said. About 800 proposals have made it to this stage, he said.
At the same time, film actor Kevin Costner and James Cameron, the director of the movies “Avatar,” about an environmental disaster on another planet, and “Titanic”, about the historic sinking of an unsinkable ship, have been able to make direct contact to champion their ideas with top officials of BP and the government.
Costner, whose connection to the spill was announced by BP on May 19, is pushing centrifuge technology that uses barge-based turbines to spin as much as 200 gallons of water a minute in such a way that oil is separated out.
$20 Million for Testing
Costner bought the design for the system from the Department of Energy 15 years ago and spent more than $20 million to develop and test it, said John Houghtaling, chief executive officer of Costner’s company, Santa Barbara, California-based Ocean Therapy Solutions, in a phone interview.
Costner didn’t go through the Web site triage process. BP spokesman John Curry, though, listed centrifuge machines as being among the four types of technology being tested.
Houghtaling, a New Orleans attorney, said the actor was hooked up with BP through Billy Nunngesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, a governmental district in coastal Louisiana. Nunngesser had seen a presentation of the technology by the actor at an offshore technology conference a decade ago.
Nunngesser sent a letter on Costner’s behalf to Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, and BP executives who had attended the same conference also supported the idea, Houghtaling said.
Even with the help, Costner’s company has met with delays and won’t start open water testing until this week, he said. His technology is designed to process 210,000 gallons a day.
Cameron yesterday joined scientists at a meeting with U.S. officials on possible solutions for the spill, and discussed his use of submersible vehicles. Cameron contacted BP several weeks ago and offered the company use of his private fleet of deep-dive craft, which he has owned since filming Titanic in the 1990s, according to a report by the Associated Press.
Moving on Their Own
Others companies are moving forward on their own to test their products.
Analytical chemist Vincent Paez traveled to Louisiana in May just to get samples of the oil coming ashore at Grand Isle. Paez, who is director of business development for food safety at Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. in Waltham, Massachusetts, took three five-gallon jugs with him to the beach and went skimming for oil.
The point was to test the crude and develop methods of how to prepare the samples for analysis. Thermo Fisher will then give these techniques to local laboratories so they can eventually assess the level of contamination and identify various contaminants such as nickel or vanadium.
“People don’t see how we’re going to get this mess cleaned up, and getting the oil out of the water will only be the first cleanup job,” Paez said. “What we have in the Gulf is a problem of chemistry, and the environmental and food safety problems in the ground will be with us for years.”
Testing for Toxins
Thermo Fisher builds instruments that analyze water and soil for contaminants, such as liquid and gas chromatographers and mass spectrometers. Besides the compounds from the oil, the equipment also test for toxins from the dispersants, which contain “pretty nasty stuff” such as chemicals that go into antifreeze and detergents, Paez said.
“So much of this is not going to go away for a long time,” he said. ‘Labs are starting to call us for help already.’’
The small number of unsolicited ideas that make it to Stage 3 within BP’s triage system reflects the fact that the vast majority are either duplicative or infeasible, MacEwen said.
Everyone who submits gets contacted, even if their idea never makes it past the first stage of review, he said. Those that make it to the third stage are sent correspondence outlining the process, according to a letter provided by BP.
Operational experts then assess whether the technology should be tested, which could lead to adoption of the solution.
“There have been many ideas that we can’t use,” said BP’s MacEwen. “But I feel certain this system has gotten us far more ideas than we would have gotten on our own.”
President Barack Obama told reporters May 28 that the administration has “the best minds” working on cleaning up the spill and “every single idea out there” is being considered. “If there’s an idea that can be shown to work, then we should move forward on it, and they deserve quick answers,” he said.
That’s not happening, said Reindl, who said he telephoned BP’s call-in line, was re-directed to the Web site where he filed information describing the product on May 3. He received a form letter on June 1.
Reindl is co-owner of Ecser Holding Corp., creator of a devulcanized-rubber product called Spill-Cure patented last year. The product can absorb up to eight times its weight in petroleum products, Reindl said in a telephone interview.
‘We’re Right Here’
By breaking down chemical bonds, the process “pops rubber molecules like popcorn,” creating microscopic pockets where oil can collect, he said. It’s non-toxic and, unlike absorbent pads and other equipment in use now, the product can be cleaned and reused, he said.
Reindl said he understands the difficulty of sorting through so many suggestions. “Still,” he said, “it’s frustrating for a group like us. It’s like, ‘Guys, we’re right here. We can do this.’”
Ecser has produced small amounts of the material out of a factory leased in North Bergen, New Jersey. In about 3 months, with an investment of about $3 million, Reindl said he could probably produce about 100 tons a week of the product.
“Every big organization must have somebody like President Harry Truman, with a sign on the desk that says ‘The buck stops here,’” said Moshe Gutman, Reindl’s partner, in a telephone interview. “Apparently, they don’t have that person at BP.”
Griffin is president of Impact Services Inc., a closely held radioactive and hazardous waste processor that makes Pristine Sea, a clay-based, non-toxic product that binds crude into soft clumps that can be skimmed from the water’s surface. A pound of the product, which costs about $5, cleans about a gallon of oil, he said.
Pristine Sea was developed about 18 years ago by Louisiana State University and Lockheed Martin Corp. in Bethesda. Maryland. It has been tested in the Baltic Sea by the Finns and Russians, according to Impact Services Web site. LSU is currently testing Pristine Sea on samples from the spill.
“When things like the spill happen, everybody comes out of the woodwork with their own brand of magic dust, but often it hasn’t been tested,” said Greg Broda, executive vice president at Impact Services, in a telephone interview. “We have a viable, tested, non-toxic product and we’re having a problem getting anyone to listen to us let alone selling it.”
Broda said that he met with local officials of St. Bernard’s Parish in Louisiana and they told him that if he had some official indication from BP that his product worked, they were ready to use it. They said “If you had a letter from BP saying it was an approved product, then problem solved, we could move forward with this.”
Unlike Any Before
The feeling that no one is in charge may come from the fact that the current spill is unlike any before it, said Henry Lee, director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Among the biggest differences is the depth of the wellhead, more than 5,000 feet down in the Gulf, and the fact that this is not a spill, but rather a continuous spill. Because it’s so unusual, it’s unclear which U.S. agency is playing or should play the lead role in combating it, Lee said.
Another issue may be that much of the technology being proposed by companies offers little more than a minor upgrade to what’s already in use, including booms to shepherd the oil, skimmers that attach to boats to scoop oil off of the water, and absorbent pads that are tossed into the water and then picked up and disposed of as hazardous waste.
20 Percent Pickup
The combination of the three probably picks up about 20 percent of the oil spilled, said Ralph Portier, a professor of environmental sciences at LSU in Baton Rouge who is developing a new type of boom system.
“They’ve used booms on every spill I’ve ever worked on,” Portier said in a telephone interview. “The thinking is, ‘We’ve got lots of booms, so let’s use booms.’ The problem is they don’t work that well unless they are constantly monitored. We need a lot more bright ideas.”
Portier said he was among a group of scientists used by BP in the first days after the explosion to vet ideas, reviewing about three dozen proposals.
“I sent 10 or 12 on to BP for review, although I haven’t received any response on them,” he said, adding that some of the proposals he didn’t send on were “blatantly dangerous.”
Beefing Up Microbes
Portier himself has worked on several inventions to aid the clean up, including a stationary boom that requires less monitoring and can withstand water turbulence and an approach that supplements the microbes already in the water that eat oil. This bio-augmentation approach involves adding fertilizer for nutrients, as well as additional microbes that are identical to the indigenous bacteria.
“There are people who say it’s not efficacious to add microbes and nutrients, but most of these people have never cleaned up an oil spill,” he said. “Mother Nature can’t do it by itself, not with this scope.”
Portier also awaits a go-ahead to test the products he is helping to develop with private companies.
In that mode, researchers from around the country are preparing to meet tomorrow at Portier’s school in Baton Rouge to begin to figure out how best to gauge the current and future health of the Gulf, according Daniel Rudnick of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.
Rudnick is cutting short a trip to France so he can help measure the amount of oil beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, and find out where it’s going. His research group will contribute a remote-controlled underwater glider, capable of traveling as deep as 500 meters (547 yards) to find the hidden oil and deduce its destination by measuring water currents.
The glider will also test how much oil is there by detecting the difference between the fluorescence of water and that of the crude.
Rudnick is among a group from Scripps, Rutgers University in New Jersey, and the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, and LSU who are leading the charge, he said in a telephone interview.
“It’s a coalition of people who, in a sense, volunteered,” Rudnick said in a telephone interview. “There’s a national need and we’re all happy to do our part.”
The effort, using technology that’s still being tested, could be vital to determining which areas are at highest risk of damage from the spill, Rudnick said. The researchers have applied for emergency funding from the U.S. government and started their studies without knowing whether or when they’ll be reimbursed, he said.
Rudnick said he was contacted about two weeks ago by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. They were looking for scientists who might have equipment to measure oil content and currents. NOAA had helped fund his glider’s development and he was happy to contribute, he said.
While there have been reports of plumes of oil beneath the Gulf’s surface, no one knows exactly how much oil is there right now, said Breck Owens, a professor at Woods Hole who has volunteered six technical workers to help staff a research ship. Researchers still don’t know whether the sub-surface oil is trapped in bubbles or dissolving into the salt water, he said.
The project may provide a better understanding of the Gulf’s strong Loop Current, which Hurricane Katrina followed in its path toward New Orleans in 2005, and can also affect drilling operations, Owens said. Some of the underwater oil appears to be trapped in that current, he said.
“The technology for extracting oil has advanced far more than the technology for cleaning up a spill because that’s where the industry puts its money,” said Dennis Kelso, executive vice president of the Ocean Conservancy who worked at the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.