What Can Gulf Communities Do To Protect Their Beaches from the Oil Spill?


Gulf coastal communities should, of course, use oil booms if they can.

But how can they clean up oil which makes it near or onto their beaches?

There are much better alternatives to the toxic dispersant being dumped into the oceans.

Initially, as historical photos demonstrate, hay was successfully used to help clean up the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill:

And these two gentlemen demonstrate that hay is effective at soaking up oil:

(Admittedly, hay is bulky, and so it is difficult to transport long distances).

Corn cobs are another alternative. As RP Siegel notes:

By far the most compelling idea I’ve heard about comes from a Michigan woman named Adria Brown. Brown’s company, Recovery I Inc., has developed and patented a product called Golden Retriever that is designed to recover oil from water. It is made from corn cobs. Corn cobs turn out to be especially effective in this task, due to the fact that they are buoyant, and the fact that they tend to spin in moving water, which exposes their entire surface to the oil which clings readily to it. The absorption occurs quickly, and once adhered to, the cob will remain afloat without leaching, for over 24 hours allowing plenty of time for retrieval using skimmers. As an added benefit, the oil can be completely recovered by centrifuge and the cobs can be reused. Brown has been working with an extensive farm network across the Midwest, led by Feeders Grain and Supply of Corning, Iowa, to acquire the needed materials in quantity. Together, they have amassed a stockpile of close to 34,000 tons of material that is ready to be deployed to the Gulf, where it can be administered using barges, that is, as soon as someone down there asks for it. Sen. Chuck Grassley has also been involved, helping to move the paperwork in Washington.

Where will the manpower come from? How about the thousands of fishermen who are now out of work and are willing to do anything they can to save their livelihood? How about paying them instead of paying expensive outside consultants with their exotic chemical cocktails? According to Ott, who was on location in Lafayette, LA, when I spoke to her, “the people down here are looking for something that is “bayou-degradable.”

We can only hope that the folks in charge of the cleanup will listen to sensible suggestions, rather that continuing to rely on rash measures, in the appearance of “doing something” about the problem.

In addition, certain materials can electrically attach to and bind oil molecules (called “adsorption” with a “d” instead of a “b”), and are excellent for cleaning up oil spills.

This promotional video (advertising products which are no longer for sale) shows the potential of using adsorbants to clean up oil spills:

Activated carbon may be an effective adsorbant, and is fairly inexpensive to manufacture. It can be made from a wide variety of agricultural byproducts such as coconut shells or corn cobs.

(Indeed, the corn cob clean up technique discussed above probably relies upon corn cobs which have been activated so that they are more adsorbant).

Finally, hair adsorbs oil. As Nasa wrotein 1998:


Researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville are testing an Alabama hairdresser’s hair-raising technique of using human hair to soak up oil spills. This could lead to a number of applications, including reducing landfill waste, saving costs in oil spill cleanups and recovering spilled oil for fuel.

Madison, Alabama, hairdresser Phillip McCrory was watching television coverage of 1989’s oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. He saw the oil-saturated fur of a sea otter and asked himself, “If animal fur can trap and hold spilled oil, why can’t human hair?” He conducted a home experiment using five pounds of human hair he had cut, collected and stuffed into a pair of his wife’s pantyhose tied into a ring. He filled his son’s wading pool with water, put the hair-filled hosiery ring into the center of the pool and poured used motor oil into the middle.

McCrory found that human hair adsorbs—rather than absorbs—oil. That is, instead of bonding with the hair, the oil gathers in layers on the hair’s surface, allowing for easy recovery and reuse of the oil by simply squeezing it from the collection bundles.

McCrory researched and made sure his solution was unique. He found patents similar to his idea that involved using sheep’s wool and duck feathers for in-demand items such as clothing and insulation, but they do not adsorb as well as human hair.

“Human hair thousands of years old has been found in landfills, and tons of human hair cut every day are tossed into landfills,” McCrory said. Using the hair to clean up oil spills would both put it to work and reduce the amount of waste material going into landfills, he believes. Oil-saturated bundles of hair can be burned as fuel, and the energy value contained in the collection bundles can be recovered.

Researchers at Marshall agreed to test McCrory’s idea under controlled laboratory conditions for potential use by NASA and other U.S. government agencies. Successful preliminary field tests also influenced Marshall’s decision to test McCrory’s system further.

In an initial test, David Glover, a chemical systems supervisor for Marshall contractor BAMSI, Inc., filled a 55-gallon oil drum with 40 gallons of water and 15 gallons of oil. “The mixture was filtered through nylon bags filled with hair,” said Glover. “When the water was tested after just a single pass through McCrory’s innovative filter, only 17 parts of oil per million parts of water remained.”

McCrory estimates that 25,000 pounds of hair in nylon collection bags may be sufficient to adsorb 170,000 gallons of spilled oil. Preliminary tests show that a gallon of oil can be adsorbed in less than two minutes with McCrory’s method.

There is also a potential cost savings in McCrory’s method. Present oil cleanup methods cost approximately $10 to recover a gallon of oil. McCrory’s system may cost as little as $2 per gallon and offers the additional benefit of being able to use the recovered oil for fuel. McCrory has founded and is president of his own company, BEPS Inc. of Madison, Alabama.

Hair is a free and virtually unlimited resource. Human hair grows quickly, and with close to 300 million Americans wanting to help out, a lot can be used.

Indeed, many barbershops and hair salons are already collecting hair. My eldest daughter and her friends are also collecting hair to send to the Gulf (I hadn’t heard of the use of hair before my daughter told me about it – and that was long before I understood the science behind it).

So the bottom line is that collecting hair (or – if it is plentiful in the local community – hay or corn cobs) – and bundling it into nylon stockings or other sacks and putting it on the beaches and in shallow water is probably the most realistic approach.

The oil-soaked hair, hay or corn can then be taken out of the sacks and then carefully burned as a fuel or heating source, or reprocessed for oil by an oil refinery.

Note 1: Most government agencies still don’t know about the science behind adsorption. Your local community will have to educate them. Start by sending them the Nasa article.

Note 2: There is some anecdotal evidence that oyster mushrooms can detoxify oil after it is removed from the ocean. As the San Francisco Chronicle notes regarding the clean-up of a 2007 oil spill in the San Francisco Bay Area:

Once the mats are soaked with black gunk, oyster mushrooms will take over, growing on the mats and absorbing the oil.

National mushroom expert Paul Stamets was in town the weekend after the spill for the Green Festival, heard of Gautier’s work and donated $10,000 worth of oyster mushrooms to harvest on the oily hair mats.

Gautier said the mushrooms will absorb the oil within 12 weeks, Gautier said, turning the hair mats into nontoxic compost.

“You make it like a lasagna,” Gautier said. “You layer the oily hair mats with mushrooms and straw, turn it in six weeks, and by 12 weeks you have good soil.”

The soil may not be good enough to grow carrots but is certainly good enough to use for landscaping along roads, she said.

Update: The prestigious Battelle Laboratories has tested oyster mushrooms and found them very effective for detoxifying oil.

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