The situation in the Gulf of Mexico has become personal. How well we respond to this very RESOLVABLE situation is a litmus test for EVERYTHING, not just how we do business, but our education system as well.
I have driven over 1,000 miles in the past week, first to meet and interview three prominent microbiologists at the ASM Conference in San Diego. ASM is the American Society for Microbiology. Microbiology is the area of science that would be expected to offer the most useful advice on how to remediate an oil spill. That is, if an understanding of microbial dynamics was sufficiently taught in colleges and universities. The term bioremediation refers to the use of life forms, in this case, microscopic life forms, referred variously as microbes, enzymes, and bacteria, to literally consume the contaminant which, in the case of the Gulf of Mexico, is crude oil.
The advantages of bioremediation are manifold, beginning with the fact that as the toxic contaminant is broken down, the results of the degradation is non-toxic. In other words, the oxygen depleted marine environment once again becomes oxygen rich, which supports the recolonization of the smallest creatures that constitute the base of the food chain. Chemical dispersants and surfactants (detergents) retard this recolonization, thereby extending the timeline in the recovery. Depending on the size of the contamination, this could turn years in recovery time, as some of the microbiologists suggested, into decades. Bioremediation can demonstrate a restoration of the ability to support microscopic life in periods that range from several weeks, to days. Of course, the extent of the contamination is a factor.
While many microbiologists appear to be aware of bioremediation, the understanding is not clear enough to have made it a primary or preferred protocol when “oil hits the fan.” In fact, even in documented cases of bioremediation successes, the professional opinion was that the protocol is inconclusive. Why? Because even though the oil disappeared, they didn’t know where it went. I’m referring to records of the first bioremediation effort that was performed in the Gulf of Mexico, some 20 years ago, in June of 1990, after the Mega Borg spill.
This is excerpted from a report of the Mega Borg bioremediation effort, as recorded in a journal published by the ASM.
“In terms of bioremediation strategies, the On-Scene Coordinator granted permission to conduct a field trial 1 day after the accident occurred. Two portions of the slick were treated with a product containing Alpha BioSea (108). A 16-hectare patch of slick located about 5 km from the Mega Borg was treated 7 days after the accident with 50 kg of microbial agent (Alpha BioSea) which had been rehydrated with seawater. The product was applied with the standard shipboard fire-hose system. The equipment and treatment preparation time of approximately 1 h (108) indicates that very little rehydration time was given to the product. Four traverses of the treatment area were made over a 30-min period.
“Following large-scale application of the product at sea, visual observations indicated that the treated oil changed from a continuous film of brown oil and sheen to discrete areas of mottled brown and yellow material and sheen. An aerial reconnaissance 16 h after treatment was not able to detect oil in the area. However, there is considerable uncertainty about the fate of the treated oil (108).
“The measurements on water samples from the treated slick showed no evidence of acute toxicity to marine life or significantly elevated levels of nutrients or total hydrocarbons. Attempts to assess the effect of the microbial agent from measurements of oil content in the emulsion samples were unsuccessful because of sample variability. By 8 h after treatment, the slick had largely broken up and dissipated. Although little change was observed in the control area, conclusive evidence of bioremediation effectiveness was not achieved because of limitations in the sampling strategy and the chemical evidence obtained.
“This study demonstrated the potential problems with the application of bioremediation products at sea, including difficulties with uniform product application, representative sampling, and uncertainties about the ultimate fate of the oil. The short periods over which monitoring is often possible may not be sufficient to validate the presence and activity of oil-degrading bacteria or the effectiveness of bioremediation treatments. The observed visual effects may well have been caused by physical or chemical processes such as surfactant action associated with the treatment.” (SOURCE: “Field Evaluations of Marine Oil Spill Bioremediation” Microbiological Reviews, June 1996)
In this field trial in an area of open sea about 40 acres in size, roughly 100 lbs of microbial agent was used (re-hydrated with seawater), which took about 1 hour to complete. 16 hours later, there was no sign of a slick, NOR was there any toxicity. It is apparent that the slick, and the toxicity had been persistent for days prior to the test, but now they were gone. Instead of demonstrating some encouragement over the success and seeing areas of new research, the writer cites “uncertainties about the ultimate fate of the oil” as reasons to be wary of bioremediation. I guess we could say that you can take a microbiologist to the sea and show the wonder of nature at work, but you can’t make him see it.”
We know why the microbiologist, and the incident writer with the U.S. Coast Guard, who basically wrote that bioremediation was tried, but was inconclusive, came to their conclusions twenty years ago. Oil spill remediation products, which were themselves petrochemical-based, were becoming a market sector themselves. Microbes could be collected, but they could not be patented. Instead of doing what was best for the seas, the chemical companies looked out for themselves. We’re paying the price of this depraved indifference to both marine and human life, to this very day.
After seeing how the microbiologists were thinking, I drove from San Diego, back to Port Hueneme, to meet again with Joseph Johnson, the young researcher who placed the PHOTONIC Water transformation device on the strawberry field, and has witnessed and explained many remarkable changes that have occurred. I had been there just one week prior. In addition to doing the follow-up on the strawberry field’s progress, Joseph had set up a bioremediation experiment in a small seawater aquarium. He was using a product that restores mineral balance to the water, combined with a culture of oil-consuming microbes that he had isolated.
These microbes have the ability to multiply at astronomical rates. A single microbe can become billions and even trillions in a day’s time. They will continue to multiply as long as there is a food supply; “food” in this case being oil. When the food supply is consumed, they stop multiplying (perhaps their purpose is served), and they are consumed by other microbes, which are consumed by ever higher lifeforms. This is the mystery that the microbiologist did not fathom, and instead of seeing a promising area for new research, the writer cast a pall of doubt (under the veil of “uncertainty”) about the entire process.
When I left Port Hueneme a week prior, we were both bummed that the experiment didn’t appear to have worked. The one-ounce combination of gas and motor oil that Joseph applied to the water did in fact, kill the aquatic life in the tank. Applying the remediant to the surface of the water didn’t save them. I left on a somber note, although the news from the strawberry field had been wonderful. Joseph and I talked about the oil spill and remediation strategies for my radio show, Talk For Food. While we were not ambivalent, we hadn’t seen the result that we hoped for.
Three days later, as I finished up producing the radio show for that week, which included our conversation, I received notice of a voice mail message. It was Joseph, saying he thought I’d be happy to know that the water in the tank was now pristine, and that it once again supported microbial life. In fact, they were thriving more now than they were before the “oil spill.”
The experiment did work. Bioremediation did work.
So it made sense to go back to Port Hueneme last week, and see the clear water for myself, allow Joseph to see and hear what the microbiologists were saying, and get his take on it all.
I’ll share more of that here, and on video.