The occasional sounds of sea birds filled the air and brown pelicans flew past the airboat moving along the oil-soaked edges of salt marshes near Plaquemines Parish, La.
Steve Presley, a zoonotic disease researcher with The Institute of Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech University, surveyed the booms pushed far into the grasses only days after Hurricane Alex had blown through. He carried with him a new prototype material being developed by TIEHH to more effectively pick up the pasty “chocolate mousse” crude oil material.
Thanks to the help of Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, Presley was able to obtain clearance into areas hit hardest by the oil spill to test the prototype material.
“We were part of 'Team Nungesser' for a few days,” Presley said. “It’s a war going on trying to stop that oil as it moves in to the salt marshes. The salt grass mats are the environmentally rich areas for fishing and seafood, oyster beds, shrimp – everything. In the delta, there are 35 miles from the mainland to open water that’s grassland marshes. They’re trying to stop the oil as it penetrates deeper and deeper into that marsh.”
Presley hoped the new product could be useful to workers to aid in cleanup or the prevention of more oil washing into the marshes. He and nonwoven fabric researcher, Seshadri Ramkumar, are trying to create an effective nonwoven material similar to Fibertect but specifically designed to stop oil from eating away more marsh.
As the airboat moved along, Presley watched an amazing flotilla of workers trying to fight the oil. Small boats carried people to larger boats to pick up supplies and booms.
Donning a non-breathable Tyvek protective suit and an organic vapor mask, Presley said he got a first-hand experience of what cleanup workers endure every day. On a 100-degree day with 99.9 percent humidity looming, he said he understood exactly why the crew can only work for 20 minutes before taking a 40-minute break.
“The oil is viscous, adheres to everything and forms an almost waxy layer on anything it touches,” he said. “It stops the penetration or absorption into materials that normally absorb crude oil. The booms – the oil doesn’t penetrate. It just coats them. The product we were testing showed significant promise as far as a means of impeding movement of oil. We’re in the process of redesigning and reevaluating what characteristics work best and which ones we need to improve to make it more effective.”
Keeping the oil at bay has been a problem. Once booms are coated, oil mats can find their way over or under booms as high tide pushes oil into the grass. Low tide sucks water out of the marsh but re-coats the grass with oil. Once coated, the sun cooks the oil and kills the grass, leaving behind an area looking much like a slowly burning West Texas prairie fire.
Ramkumar said the new product is made from 100 percent raw cotton designed to target oil alone, where as Fibertect has the capability of both oil and vapors. The specially designed material will be made into absorbent pads and sorbent booms, which are cheaper and more environmentally friendly than the polypropylene booms being used now.
“Texas Tech’s Nonwovens and Advance Materials Laboratory has perfected the needlepunch nonwoven machine to process raw cotton straight from a bale produced in West Texas to develop lightweight and heavyweight cotton nonwovens,” Ramkumar said. “We use cotton that has barks and other vegetable matter as it is normally present in small quantity in the bale so that the vegetable matter also will help in soaking up oil. Our extensive research with different materials, such as raw cotton, commercially available polypropylene oil absorbents, human hair and wool has shown that cotton comes to be the best candidate for absorbing at least two to three times that of commercial polypropylene oil pads.”
The problem that the booms currently being used and other materials are facing is that the oil coming ashore is a pasty, solidified material that doesn’t absorb the same way raw crude oil might. Trapping and keeping the oil has stymied standard cleanup methods.
“The challenge is to get high oil absorbency rates in the actual scenario in the gulf due to the nature of the oil,” he said. “As the oil is semi-solid, almost all of the absorbent pads will have some difficulty in picking up the heavy material. This new absorbent pad can be used by hand as a scoop and then wiped away. The cotton pads also can cover hard surfaces such as steel plates, shovels, etc. The immediate application of this cotton pad is to use it as absorbent pad on oil layers and semi-viscous oil on marshy land, and contaminated hard surfaces, such as boats. In addition, this cost-efficient cotton pad can be used for cleaning crewmembers who are actively working in the Gulf of Mexico.”
The product is almost ready to go, he said, and the United States Nonwovens Industry has the capability to produce absorbent pad and materials from raw cotton in huge quantities depending on the availability of cotton.
Though recent efforts to cap the well seem hopeful, Presley said the well capping isn’t the end of the story. Even after capping, the shores can expect another 85 days of oil. And even after that, there’s the ecological and economic rebuilding process that may take years or even decades to repair.
“From a humanistic standpoint, they’re truly fighting for their survival down there,” Presley said. “I didn’t realize how devastating at the grassroots level this could be. It’s an environmental tragedy, but the human tragedy is the economic impact on the region that’s really only now getting back on its feet after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They’re all worried down there. And when I say ‘they,’ I mean the fishermen, the people of New Orleans and of Plaquemines Parish. They are worried that the national attention will no longer be focused on their problem after the well is capped, and they’re going to be on their own again to deal with the months and years of cleanup and recovery that will follow.”