In what could be a significant boost to the bioremediation industry, specially modified crop-dusting planes Thursday began spraying oil-eating microbes over environmentally sensitive wetlands that were befouled by last Saturday's oil spill in Galveston Bay, Tex.
The first areas scheduled for spraying included Pelican Island, where oil began coming ashore Tuesday. The unprecedented decision to use the biological treatment technology on wetlands during the first phase of cleanup was made earlier this week by the Regional Response Team, a group of 14 federal and state agencies that include the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard.
On Thursday, Gov. Bill Clements finally agreed to a scaled-back application of microbes. For nearly two years, Texas' General Land Office has been working with Alpha Environmental of Austin to develop oil cleanup technology.
Alpha Environmental is a start-up company using a process developed by scientist Carl Oppenheimer. The microbes, naturally occurring microorganisms, are added to existing populations of bacteria to remove, dissipate and detoxify the crude oil compounds.
Microbes were used in June, in the aftermath of the explosion of the Norwegian tanker Mega Borg, when nearly 4.6 million gallons of oil were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico and threatened the Texas coast. However, in that instance, the microbes were used in the open sea, and scientists agree that it is extremely difficult to evaluate the contribution the microbes made to the cleanup.
This new application of microbes, say industry insiders, could provide the best test yet of the technology. If it can be proved that the microbes, and not other natural events, were instrumental in the cleanup, it could trigger more widespread use of bioremediation in oil spills and other environmental disasters, said Al W. Bourquin, vice president of Ecova, a bioremediation firm in Redmond, Wash.
"We need definitive proof that the microbes are doing what (the companies) claim they can do," he said.
Nearly half a million gallons of oil have been disgorged since two barges collided with a Greek oil tanker in Galveston Bay, one of the nation's most productive estuaries. Because oil skimmers and even human intervention would tax the delicate ecology of the wetlands, state land officials said the microbial treatment was the best choice of cleanup options.
"This (the wetlands) is more where microbes really needed to be used," said Dave Roberts, a Land Office spokesman.
Biological treatments, often called bioremediation, have been tested for decades and are being used in hazardous waste cleanup. But the first major break for use of bioremediation in oil spills came after the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, two years ago. After that 11-million-gallon spill proved overwhelming for traditional cleanup methods, the EPA began to seriously evaluate microbial techniques.
The Oppenheimer process was, in fact, one of 10 studied in post-Valdez tests by the National Environmental Technology Application Corp., a partnership of the EPA and the University of Pittsburgh Trust. However, it was not one of the two processes recommended after the study to the EPA for actual use in cleaning up the still oil-encrusted beaches of Prince William Sound.
Lawrence T. McGeehan, vice president of NETAC, said the two technologies that were recommended showed "significant" improvements over simple fertilization methods. Whereas some bioremediation methods, including Alpha Environmental, call for adding microbes to those existing in the endangered environment, others simply add fertilizers to stimulate the organisms that are already there.
The two companies whose products were selected are Environmental Remediation of Baton Rouge and Sybron Chemicals of Salem, Va. McGeehan said he was prohibited by confidentiality agreements from revealing how Alpha Environmental's process performed in the tests.
Bourquin, a former EPA official, believes that bioremediation will become a more accepted technology but said many in the industry worry that, in the act of quickly responding to disasters such as the Galveston Bay oil spill, proper scientific controls might be lacking.
"Sure, this could help the rest of the industry, but it could also hurt, and that's one of the things we are extremely concerned about . . . if someone makes a claim that they can't prove, or if it doesn't work."
Executives of Alpha Environmental, many of whom were involved in the spraying operation, were unavailable for comment Thursday.