Could microbes be a natural solution for oil spill cleanup?

Some researchers have developed ways to take naturally occurring microbes and stabilize and apply them in so as to greatly accelerate the process. For instance, Microbe Tech does this by suspending the microbes in an organic binding material and using special sprayers that allow the microbes to take hold and rapidly expand. They can be sprayed on shorelines, near shorelines, in marshy areas, bays, and open ocean. Note that microbes can be genetically modified and this is very much not recommended, as the effects on ecosystems cannot really be predicted. (The companies that never use GMOs are the only ones I will deal with.)


Use of natural microbes to clean up toxins in water is well documented as being safe and stabilizing for ecosystems. They were used to clean up a much smaller oil spill off of the Texas coast line many years ago. They’ve been used in a number of fresh water lakes and river systems to clean up heavy toxins including mercury. They have been used to clean up the Sea of Japan.


They are superior to other solutions because they are nature’s own way of handling toxicity in the environment, and because once applied, nothing more is needed -- no need to pick up tons of hay soaked in oil, for instance, and because they are non-toxic, unlike the chemical solutions that have been used en masse to address much of the spill. If applied correctly, it is possible they could prevent oil from hitting shores at all or greatly minimize the damage and help clean it up much faster. This could save many millions in clean up costs and lost economic opportunity resulting from ruined fishing areas and beaches. Application of microbes is also much less expensive than many of the other proposed options.


Image via Biology BioZine.

From a permaculture (sustainable design) viewpoint, I’ve been watching the unfolding of the various solutions for the Gulf oil spill. There is one that stands out above the others for giving real hope and being perhaps the most ethical solution both environmentally and economically: microbes.

Microbes are nature’s way of balancing the ecosystem and cleaning up toxins in it. There are microbes that eat just about any substance, even heavy metals (they neutralize them, making them unassimilable in living tissues). Naturally occurring microbes in the ocean and on the shoreline will eventually eat the oil, break it down, and neutralize most of the toxins. They bind or transform harmful toxins to inert or even edible ingredients. When they have eaten all the oil, they die off, start sinking to the bottom of the ocean, and the sea returns to its former balanced state. This has happened at the Exxon Valdez site and every other oil spill, on its own. But it takes time, especially when there is so very much oil suddenly appearing in the system.

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