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Inventors say BP ignoring oil spill ideas

A suggestion box or publicity stunt? BP has received thousands of ideas from the public on how to stop the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but some inventors complain that their efforts are ignored.
Image: Greenpeace staff member takes sample of water in heavily oiled marsh near South Pass
Greenpeace staff member Lindsey Allen takes a sample of water in a heavily oiled marsh near South Pass, Louisiana, on Wednesday.Lee Celano / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

A suggestion box or publicity stunt? BP has received thousands of ideas from the public on how to stop the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, but some inventors are complaining that their efforts are getting ignored.

Oil-eating bacteria, bombs and a device that resembles a giant shower curtain are among the 10,000 fixes people have proposed to counter the growing environmental threat. BP is taking a closer look at 700 of the ideas, but the oil company has yet to use any of them nearly a month after the deadly explosion that caused the leak.

"They're clearly out of ideas, and there's a whole world of people willing to do this free of charge," said Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of InnoCentive Inc., which has created an online network of experts to solve problems.

BP spokesman Mark Salt said the company wants the public's help, but that considering proposed fixes takes time.

"They're taking bits of ideas from lots of places," Salt said. "This is not just a PR stunt."

BP said Wednesday it hopes to begin shooting a mixture known as drilling mud into the blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico by Sunday. The "top kill" method involves shooting heavy mud into crippled equipment on top of the well, then aiming cement at the well to permanently keep down the oil. Even if it works it could take several weeks to complete.

"This is all being done at a depth of 5,000 feet and it's never been done at these depths before," said Doug Suttles of BP PLC, which leased the rig that exploded April 20 off the coast of Louisiana.

If the top kill effort fails, BP is considering a "junk shot," which involves shooting knotted rope, pieces of tires and golf balls into the blowout preventer. Crews hope they will lodge into the nooks and crannies of the device to plug it.

About 70 BP workers are taking more suggestions at a tip line center in Houston. The company plans to test one idea from actor Kevin Costner — a centrifuge device to vacuum up the oil — but that was not delivered through the suggestion-box system.

BP succeeded in partially siphoning away the leak over the weekend, when it hooked up a mile-(1.6-kilometer)long tube to the broken pipe, sending some of the oil to a ship on the surface.

Gerald Graham, a marine environmental consultant and oil spill response expert from Victoria, British Columbia, said he suggested a similar idea at the end of April to the joint incident command center run by BP, government agencies and Transocean Ltd., which owned the rig. The command center had him forward the idea to NOAA, which didn't respond.

"Why didn't they do this sooner?" Graham said. "Why did they wait so long?"

In the weeks before BP hooked up the tube, it tried but failed to use a four-story concrete-and-metal box to funnel the oil into a pipe and to the surface.

Salt said ideas for stopping the leak "have to be taken through loads of different stages" before BP can try to use them.

"We're dealing with things at a depth that has never been done before. They have to go through lots of vigorous tests," he said.

Spradlin, the InnoCentive CEO, denounced BP's call for help as a "publicity maneuver." His Massachusetts-based company challenged its Web-connected network of scientists, engineers, academics and other professionals to come up with possible solutions to stop the spill. Hundreds of ideas have poured in, but the company says BP has not responded.

Ideas submitted through InnoCentive include spreading oil-eating bacteria and dropping bombs to implode the leaking well.

Even the director of EPA's Gulf of Mexico Program Office is waiting to see if his idea will get used. Bryon O. Griffith worked in his spare time to develop an umbrella-style plug that could be deployed inside the damaged pipe, an idea that has been placed on a short list for consideration.

BP has fielded some 60,000 calls from the public that led to 10,000 tips. About 2,500 people sent in forms spelling out their ideas in greater detail, and BP advanced 700 to the next phase.

"And then we ask, is this something new?" BP spokesman David Nicholas said. "Can we incorporate it into our stuff, or is there an overlap? There hasn't been one that's come from that system that's come all the way."

Costner, the "Waterworld" and "Field of Dreams" actor, has invested more than $24 million in developing the centrifuge invention, along with business partner John Houghtaling II of New Orleans.

On Tuesday, Houghtaling said BP has agreed to test the devices, which can be dropped into the oil spill and separate water from oil, storing the petroleum in tanks. The smallest weighs 150 pounds (68 kilograms); the largest 4,500 pounds (2,040 kilograms).

"It's like a big vacuum cleaner," Houghtaling said. "These machines are ready to be employed. The technology is familiar to the industry."

It's not just BP that's been receiving ideas.

"You name it, it's been suggested. At least 15 times a day we get something about exploding the well — bombs, nuclear bombs, torpedoes," said Coast Guard Senior Chief Steve Carleton. He said he receives about a dozen emails a day with a link to a YouTube video of a man using hay to sop up oil.

"There's so many ideas you become numb to them."

Mark Badger, a businessman from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, proposed a series of wide fabric tubes that would connect and stretch to the sea floor. That contraption would contain the oil and allow workers to skim it.

"Think of a giant shower curtain at 5,000 feet that goes to the bottom of the ocean," Badger said.

Badger said the proposal hasn't received much response from BP despite a series of attempts to discuss it with company officials.