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Corks, pillows to plug oil spill?

Government officials are being inundated with homespun remedies as they try to prevent the nightmare scenario of oil washing up all over the Gulf Coast.
Image: Members of the U.S. Army National Guard install Hesco containers along the beaches of Dauphin Island, Ala.
Members of the U.S. Army National Guard install Hesco containers along the beaches of Dauphin Island, Ala., on Tuesday. The containers are designed to absorb oil through a fibrous material which reacts with a non-harmful material that changes the sheen to a more solid state which can be recycled. John David Mercer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Here's an idea for stopping all that oil from spewing into the Gulf of Mexico: Put a cork in the blown-out well. If that doesn't work, how about freezing the petroleum to create black oilsicles that can be picked up, refined and sold?

Government officials are being inundated with homespun remedies as they try to prevent the nightmare scenario of oil washing up all over the Gulf Coast, blackening a region known for its abundant wildlife and white beaches.

Some proposals are realistic, others seem far-fetched. Some are just goofy.

Someone who called a telephone line that was accepting public suggestions mentioned stopping the flow by capping the damaged well with a cork, said Lt. James McKnight, a spokesman with the Coast Guard in Mobile. It would have to be a really big cork, presumably.

One caller suggested sewing pillows together to line beaches and soak up the oil as it comes ashore. Along the same line, dozens of salons in Alabama and Florida are collecting hair trimmings with plans to stuff shorn locks into old stockings and create makeshift oil-absorbers called booms.

On Facebook, a group dedicated to the oil spill includes suggestions like using explosives to stop the gusher, which is about 5,000 feet underwater.

And some suggest the real solution is an old standby — prayer.

'Fixing to do a demonstration'
A group of business people with a product called Clean Kool have suggested using a carbon dioxide solution shot from guns to freeze parts of the slick, which could then be scooped up and refined. Supporters of the idea include consultant Lee Helms, a former director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency who now is in private business.

"We're fixing to do a demonstration of our product for a couple of mayors down at the beach. The state is going to look at our product, too," said Terry Hester, a representative of Clean Kool. "We've got a product we know will work."

Members of the Clean Kool team, like other business representatives, have gone to a command center set up by BP PLC, which is responsible for the cleanup, and the Coast Guard in Mobile to pitch their products.

Hester and his associates waited more than five hours in the lobby before guards ushered them into the nerve center of the operation, where more than 400 government and industry scientists, members of the military and others are trying to figure out how to best protect the coast.

Ken Davis of Pensacola, Florida, previously has contracted with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to clean up environmental messes by using peat moss to soak up oil on land and inland waters, but he can't get through to the federal government or companies working on the oil spill. Phone lines are busy; calls aren't returned.

Even a USDA official in Washington has tried to help him cut the red tape without luck.

"The results of this stuff are unbelievable. I can get 390,000 pounds of peat moss in 30 hours. It's an endless supply," Davis said Wednesday. "It's not an end to the problem. It just makes the cleanup a hell of a lot better."

Innovative plans in place
Some innovative ideas already are in place.

In northwestern Florida, Walton County is placing hay bales along its 26-mile shoreline and plans to spray hay into the water once the oil arrives. The oil will adhere to the strands, making it easier to remove, or so the thinking goes. The county also is setting up retention fences to capture oil in case the hay doesn't work.

A Louisiana company, HESCO Bastion USA Inc., constructs 15-foot-long wire frames that are fitted with liners. All over Iraq and Afghanistan, the devices have been unfolded, formed into walls and filled with sand to create barriers around U.S. military bases. They've been used in similar fashion to fortify flood walls in places including New Orleans.

On the coast, rigs that troops call "HESCO barriers" now stand in shallow water off Dauphin Island in a 3-mile-long wall meant to stop oil from fouling delicate grasses and bird habitat. They are filled with sand to help catch the oil and hold the rigs in place, and plans call for adding an absorbent agent to solidify the petroleum once it's captured.

"We never really thought about them being used this way, but hopefully it will help," said Dennis Barkemeyer, a technical representative from HESCO Bastion.

Alabama National Guard troops who built the wall don't know whether the contraptions will work. "There's people getting paid a lot more money than me to think up and dream up these things. We're just here executing the mission," said Sgt. Maj. William Jones.

Another old idea is being used in a new way on the island, a narrow coastal barrier between the Gulf and Mississippi Sound.

Bulldozers and bucket-loaders have pushed sand into a long ridge along the main road in an attempt to prevent oil from flowing across streets and into sewers should the slick hit Dauphin Island. In the past, such berms were constructed to guard against hurricanes.

BP's leading solution for stopping the underwater oil gyser has an otherworldly quality itself: Crews built a 100-ton concrete-and-metal box that's supposed to be placed over one of the leaks to capture oil that's now flowing into the Gulf. BP says the contraption will be on the seabed by Thursday.

Rice stalk brooms
Homespun remedies have been proposed and used in past oil spills with mixed results.

In 2006, when oil gushing from a sunken tanker threatened beaches, coral reefs and swamps in the Philippines, the government initially bought into the idea of using human hair clippings to mop up oil. Hair and feathers were gathered at collection centers, but officials decided against distributing them to coastal villages for fear of causing more pollution.

Instead, rice stalks were attached to bamboo poles and used as makeshift brooms that successfully sopped up oil from the water near the coast, said Teresita Siazon, the coordinator of the civil defense council in the Guimaras province.

Rice brooms might make it to the Gulf of Mexico before anyone tries to cap the well with a huge wine stopper.

"I'm not aware that a cork has been tried," said Lt. Collin Bronson, a Coast Guard spokesman.