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Scientists want to use bacteria to clean up oil spills

In 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil spill released an estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico – the largest offshore spill in US history. The spill caused widespread damage to marine species, fisheries, and ecosystems stretching from tidal marshes to the deep ocean floor.

Emergency responders used multiple strategies to remove oil from the Gulf: they skimmed it from the water’s surface, burned it and used chemical dispersants to break it into small droplets.

However, experts struggled to account for what had happened to much of the oil. This was an important question, because it was unclear how much of the released oil would break down naturally within a short time.

If spilt oil persisted and sank to the ocean floor, scientists expected that it would cause more extensive harm to the environment.

Before the Deepwater Horizon spill, scientists had observed that marine bacteria were very efficient at removing oil from seawater. Therefore, many experts argued that marine microbes would consume large quantities of oil from the BP spill and help the Gulf recover.

In a recent study, we used DNA analysis to confirm that certain kinds of marine bacteria efficiently broke down some of the major chemical components of oil from the spill. We also identified the major genetic pathways these bacteria used for this process, and other genes, which they likely need to thrive in the Gulf.

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Flare station is replaced at Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park

The old flare station at Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park, built amid controversy in 1989, is gone. A crew from Innovative Construction Solutions (ICS), aided by Hatton Crane Service, under the watchful eyes of Taylor Lancelot of the City of Berkeley and a representative from SCS Engineers, who built the system originally, took down the rusty leaning tower in a seven-hour session on Tuesday, Aug. 9, under bright skies with a modest westerly breeze.

Cesar Chavez Park is a green cover over what was, until 1983, the Berkeley city dump. Compostable refuse generates methane and other landfill gases. In the 1980s, a group of scientists and environmentalists argued that a flare station was unnecessary at this site. Measurements showed that surface emissions of methane were below levels of concern, probably due to the action of soil bacteria that “eat” methane. This inexpensive natural bioremediation process was sufficient, they argued.

But the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) brushed aside the measurements, branded bioremediation as “experimental,” and threatened the city with heavy fines unless it installed a mechanical gas extraction and flare system. The city complied.

More than 40 gas extraction wells lie buried at various points in the park, as well as on the grounds of the Hilton Hotel, which is also built on refuse fill. More than 16,000 feet of underground pipes channel the gas from the extraction wells to the flare station. The station consists of a condenser, which removes moisture, a pair of blowers that ram the gas into a high-temperature burner, and, above the burner, the stack, whose main function is to conceal the flame and act as stovepipe to channel the exhaust gas up above nose level.

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Written by: Martin Nicolaus
August 15, 2016
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