Alpacas, Beer, Pantyhose and Hay: Low-Tech Approaches To Oil Spill Cleanup

June 15, 2010

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It's been a little hard to watch the disaster that has continued to unfold seemingly in slow motion in the Gulf of Mexico, primarily because the average person is powerless to do anything except read the grisly details. Though most of us didn't know what “top kill” meant just a few weeks ago, we now at least DO know that it didn't work. “Top hat boxes” don't seem to have done much better.

 But after the spew ceases (and some sources estimate the drilled site is still releasing one million gallons of oil per day), the years-long clean-up will begin. The use of toxic dispersal chemicals have been raising some concerns. BP is currently using the chemical dispersants Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527, which many fear will make a bad environmental situation worse. Experts have already opined that these two commonly used dispersal chemicals are more toxic than available alternatives. During the cleanup from the Exxon Valdez spill, the Alaska Community Action on Toxins indicated that the use of these chemicals caused “respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney and blood disorders in people.”

Nice, huh?

Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen acknowledged in an interview last week that it may take until the autumn just to control the spread of the slick across four states, and that cleanup to mitigate the impact of the spill on the marshes, beaches and wildlife of the Gulf Coast may take years. “This is a long campaign and we’re going to be dealing with this for the foreseeable future,” he said. “It’s the breadth and complexity of the disaggregation of the oil that is now posing the greatest cleanup challenge.”

Currently, according to the New York Times, 1,500 vessels have been fitted with skimmers to try and collect some of the oil before it can spread to beaches.

But there are some who don't seem content to sit and watch.

A viral video that appeared on YouTube a few weeks ago has led to a campaign proposing a low-tech, green solution for cleaning up the oil: hay. The idea of using hay to clean up oil may or may not be a new one, but it was at the forefront of the mind of Darryl Carpenter, a vice president for C.W. Roberts, a Tallahassee-based road contractor company. The company had used hay in the past to clean up excess tar during road work. Thinking he might be on to something, Carpenter asked one of his subcontractors to test his theory. Turns out, it worked, as Carpenter and the subcontractor, Otis Goodson, demonstrate in this video recorded at the Walton County, Florida Sheriff's office.

Essentially, the hay is tossed into the water, where wave action mixes it with the oil. The oil sticks to the hay, at which time workers could skim it off the surface with nets (Carpenter imagines getting shrimp boats to assist with the removal). In a worst-case scenario, according to Carpenter, if the oil-sticky hay washes up on shore, it can be collected off beaches with equipment designed to pick up seaweed.

And then what to do with it? “Burn it for energy,” says Carpenter.

According to Carpenter, he has performed his demo for executives at BP but has yet to hear back from them on a decision. Said Carpenter, “"We've got boats ready to go. We're just waiting on the go-ahead from BP and the Coast Guard. I'm hoping they at least let us try it out to see if it'll work.” Carpenter has already reportedly asked permission of both BP and the Coast Guard to do a test run on a 10-acre site in Gulf Waters, but has yet to get an approval.

But at least someone is listening. Walton County, Florida, which has 26 miles of coastline in the Florida Panhandle, has already initiated a plan, via a contract with C.W. Roberts, to clean up any oil that might come its way, using Carpenter's hay method. County officials have reportedly purchased hundreds of bales of hay that it is prepared to blow into the water should the oil begin to approach beaches.

Other green ideas to disperse the oil, including one that involved the collection of 450,000 pounds of human and dog hair (and possibly even llama and alpaca hair) stuffed into pantyhose to make “hair booms” seem to have largely fallen by the wayside (possibly due to questionable success or possibly due to BP's unwillingness to do little else than spend money on slick PR campaigns designed to try and convince the public they are not greedy and soulless), despite the donation of 37,000 pairs of pantyhose by Hanes (in any case, you have to give them props for the effort).

Senator Chuck Grassley has offered his Beer Option. “I think that there's alternatives to soaking up oil that have not been used yet," said Grassley. "There's a process for making beer – I don't know if it's the yeast or what it is in making beer. You can put those microscopic things on oil and they die, and all you've got is some methane gas left.” While Grassley's grasp of science is shaky and his beer analogy weird, there is some theoretical evidence that microbes might be used to basically eat the oil.

But beer, alpacas, pantyhose and hair aside, there is some evidence that the hay idea has been used, with success, before. The Huffington Post reported that hay was used in the clean-up of an oil spill in the ocean near Santa Monica, California in 1969, used entirely by volunteers who boated the hay bales to the slick, tossed it in with pitchforks, and then scooped it up with nets or collected it off the beach.

In the meantime, Carpenter remains optimistic that his solution will work. “This is about as green and simple as it gets.”

– Tracey Schelmetic

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