Bigger than the Valdez. Now what?

May 3, 2010

Torah Kachur

A floating slick the size of Jamaica. BP with underwater robots trying to stop the bleeding. Environmental catastrophe to a degree not seen since Exxon 20 years ago. Science in Seconds covered the extent of the oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico last week. But what now? Can we staunch the bleeding and clean up the mess?

        Torah Kachur Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill bioremediation biodegradation cleanup crude oil

Simple strategies for clean up would have been handy when the slick as the size of the Vatican, but now, BP and the world are faced with how to get rid of the oil, not just contain it.  Man-made solutions, like skimming and burning, are currently being employed to limited effect, but man will never be as smart as Mother Nature.


Crude oil is a fossil fuel – made from biological organisms – and has been around for millions of years. And bacteria have had millions of years to evolve the ability to use oil as food. In fact, over 40 different Genera of Bacteria can degrade complex hydrocarbons. Therefore, nature has evolved a possible cleanup mechanism called biodegradation.


Biodegradation uses microbes in small communities, each with their own role in degrading these complex chemicals. It’s almost like a degradation line where each species in the consortium, or community, contributes one step to the breakdown, and in turn eats the chemicals as food. Biodegradation is still in use to help the Exxon cleanup on the beaches of Alaska, and bioremediation companies are getting in line to pitch their strategies and patented combinations of bacteria to BP.


It is almost as simple as just spreading germs across the slick and then watching the feast. But the bacteria work very slowly (they eat crude oil, sheesh… give them some time to digest) and speeding up the process can employ some clever strategies. The application of surfactant, or oil dispersing chemicals, can increase the surface area available for the bacteria to work on. Additionally, once the slick inevitably reaches the shore, cleanup crews will be on hand to dump fertilizer onto the slick to provide the necessary nutrients of phosphorus and nitrogen to the microbial communities.


If there is one incredibly good thing to come from the Valdez spill, we now know about the longterm consequences of oil spills and we have learned a lot about cleanup.  Bioremediation is still being used on the Alaskan coast, 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill, with even longer consequences that cannot yet be measured.  The same thing will happen for Louisiana and the Gulf.  


But regardless of how well we can clean up our mess, what man needs to do is stop these spills from happening in the first place. 



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