Matt Roth, president of Sludge Solutions International, says his company’s hydrocarbon-eating microbes can speed up oil decomposition.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010 Written by Nathan Stubbs
Two Lafayette companies believe their microbes hold the solution to cleaning up an oil-drenched coast. Now they want a shot at proving it.
On a back shelf of the warehouse office of Sludge Solutions International LLC, three gallon-size jars, hooked to an aeration system, bubble with water and a thin top-layer of oil. The oil came from a sample taken from the banks of Grand Isle and is the very same crude threatening the state’s coast. In each of the jars, which have been fed varied amounts of Sludge Solutions’ hydrocarbon-eating microbes, the oil shows slightly different levels of resiliency.
Matt Roth, president of Sludge Solutions, points to the jar being treated with the optimum combination of Sludge Solutions’ Sewper RX microbes and liquid hydrocarbons in which the oil has dispersed into some smaller, droplet-size particles. “See how this breaks down,” he says. “Once it starts getting into smaller pieces, then this stuff really starts going to town.” Roth has been running the same experiment in three smaller quart-size jars for a week. Those three jars show considerable differences, with the control jar — the one that has been left to nature — still containing a thick, viscous oil; in Roth’s experimental sample jar, loaded with Sewper RX, most of the oil has been replaced with a fizzy white substance: biomass released from the microbes, Roth says, that is totally natural and harmless to the environment.
“Really, what our product does,” he explains, “it takes what happens in nature over the course of several years, and speeds it up into weeks and months.”
Lafayette-based Sludge Solutions International specializes in producing microbe bacteria, microscopic bugs that serve as nature’s plumbing system. The company grows the microbes inside a thick liquid, in a process not that different from brewing beer. SSI then converts the liquid into a powdered form for preservation; the microbes are easily activated again through re-hydration. The company typically sells its Sewper RX microbes for sewage and wastewater treatment, but its microbes have also been used for industrial waste cleanup, and by shrimp and catfish farmers to treat runoff. “We’ve done aquaculture,” he says. “We’ve done oil, hydrocarbons. We’re really a perfect combination for what’s going to happen out in the marshes.”
Roth says his small shelf experiment proves that point, and he’s got an army of oil-devouring microbes ready to deploy to the coast. However, to date, the company’s had little success in getting the federal government or BP, the two entities running cleanup operations, to buy in. Roth is not alone. Over the past five weeks, a joint response website and hotline set up by BP and the federal government has brought in some 35,000 product pitches and ideas for both clogging the well leak and cleaning up its mess. Last week, Bloomberg News reported that just four of those ideas had advanced to a testing stage that BP will use before making final determination on any idea. The state also is assisting in evaluating alternative products through the Business Emergency Operations Center and the Academic Advisory Panel. BEOC works as a clearing house, securing information about a company and its product; the AAP then conducts a technical review. Positive reviews are then forwarded to Unified Command, the joint office of BP and the U.S. Coast Guard.
Another Lafayette company may be having better success in cutting through the bureaucracy. TMD Technologies has worked with and licensed procedures developed in LSU’s Aquatic/Industrial Toxicology Laboratory for designing microbe systems that have been used mainly for treating industrial waste sites over the past 10 years. Lab Director and LSU Professor of Environmental Sciences Ralph Portier would not offer specifics, but says he believes the company will get a shot at treating some of the oil coming into Louisiana marshes. “We’re getting close [to approval],” Portier says. “I’m getting fairly confident we’re going to make it work.”
Sludge Solution’s President Matt Roth and chairman Mary Lynn Lytal
As opposed to actually selling bugs, in the form of a condensed liquid that can then be sprayed on to an affected area, TMD and Portier have developed what he calls a more “pro-active” solution. TMD produces so-called “microbe bioreactor delivery systems” that immobilize microbes into a unit that will continuously regenerate and direct them onto a specified site. TMD and Portier draw from an LSU lab housing one of the world’s largest hazardous waste repositories of microorganism isolets in order to find the right microbes for the job. “A designer microbial community, if you will,” Portier says of the finished product. TMD’s systems have been used on Super Fund sites and on a recent 2006 Citgo oil spill in the Calcasieu River. “It’s a mature technology,” Portier says. (Because of its intellectual property license, LSU receives royalties from TMD.) Officials with TMD did not return calls for comment. TMD also is reportedly working with another LSU research-licensed company in Baton Rouge — Floating Island Environmental Solutions. FIES produces floating biomats that treat wastewater and runoff but have also been touted as a means for aiding in bank and levee stabilization and coastal restoration projects.
Lawmakers have also vented at BP and the federal government for not employing more modern and alternative tactics in combatting the spill. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser has been one of the leading voices trumpeting the testing of more tools to use in combatting the oil spill. Nungesser was the primary promoter of a plan to build sand berms to block oil from entering delicate marsh areas along the coast — a plan that recently won approval from federal regulators and funding from BP. That victory has not quieted Nungesser, who last week appeared before a U.S. Senate committee and testified that more needs to be done. “BP has not brought in any equipment,” he said. “They brought in some contractors with a little bit of equipment, a lot of personnel, and they’re billing them a lot of money, but they’re not stopping the oil and they’re not picking it up.” U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany has called for the federal government to wrest more active control of the cleanup from BP. Last week, U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon also got in on the act in what has become a common refrain. He told CNN’s John King: “Part of the frustration I have not only with our government but with the oil industry is they are drilling with 21st century technology and we’re trying to clean up with 20th century technology. That dog doesn’t hunt. We should have the best.”
For his part, Portier, who is involved with a state advisory panel to help screen products and ideas flooding in, knows first hand about the overwhelming number of product pitches the oil spill has generated. Portier says an Austin-based company sent out an email last weekend claiming its microbe bugs could devour all of the oil from the spill in 24 hours.
“There’s a lot of companies claiming they can clean up the oil,” Portier says. “I have gotten hundreds of emails.”
He adds that it is difficult to ascertain the best methods since none of these products was specifically designed for the situation unfolding out in the Gulf.
“Many of these companies, they don’t do this all the time,” Portier continues. “You don’t wait around 20 years for a major oil spill in order to keep your company alive. So, what we’re looking at are companies that have on their backburner technologies [that may apply].”
“No one has successfully gotten permits to go out and actually apply microbes and products like that in open spill situations,” he adds. “A couple of companies have just done it.”
SSI’s Roth has just about reached that point. He says his company has gone through all the appropriate channels and now can only sit and wait for a phone call. “We’re losing marsh down there,” he says. “Every day we wait, the worse it gets.
“I may just go down there,” Roth adds, noting he just received a call from a friend encouraging him to treat a recently oiled section of marsh. “I’ll section it off,” he says, “and film the whole thing to show the results.”
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