News / Arts & Entertainment

Costner's Dream Machine Separates Oil from Water

In a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill, lawmakers heard about the challenges of capturing the oil which continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico following the explosion of the Deep Water Horizon oil rig on April 20.  The panel included scientists, government officials and an Academy Award winning actor.

Kevin Costner came before the House Committee on Science and Technology not as a movie star, but as a concerned citizen and entrepreneur with an idea that could help in the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Haunted by images of the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill, Costner saw promise in a technology that could separate oil from water.

"[It's] a technology that I believe that had the potential to fight catastrophic oil spills and serve as the first line of defense in the oil spill cleanup and recovery," Costner said .

Costner invested more than $20 million in a company to design and build the machine. "The biggest plus is that it would be easy to operate."

Essentialy, it's a power vacuum that sucks up as much as 760 liters of polluted seawater a minute, spins it through a centrifuge, separates out the oil into a holding tank and dumps the clean water back into the sea. But Costner told Congress that his enthusiasm for the project was outmatched by apathy from government and private industry.

"The list of government agencies, oil companies and foreign companies we contacted reads like a 'who's who' of those who needed it, those who should have been looking for it and probably more to the point those who should have been developing it themselves," he explained.

Costner was told the device was too expensive.  That there was no need for it.  That oil spills were infrequent. But, Costner said, when spills - large or small - did occur, he stepped forward.

"We would offer to take our machines out there,"he said.  "And we couldn't get out on to the spots because the Coastguard would regulate that we couldn't get there. This kind of ineptness silenced the company," said Costner.

One reason explained Nancy Kinner, co-director of the Coastal Response Research Center at the University of New Hampshire and another member of the panel testifying before lawmakers, was issues of trying new technologies during a spill.  

"You have to be sure that you are not increasing the risk by using those technologies," she said.

Nor, Kinner said, can the U.S. deploy controlled spills on water - like controlled forest fires - to test technology.

"They do it in Canada. They do it Norway. There is no opportunity to do it in this country, and I think we need to open up that possibility," said Kinner.

The technology deployed so far in the Gulf - booms, skimmer boats and dispersants - hasn't advanced much since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, the largest to date before the disaster in the Gulf.  Albert Venosa, who directs the Land Remediation and Pollution Control Division of the Environmental Protection Agency's National Risk Management Research Laboratory, testified that many unknowns remain about the impact of oil dispersants in the water column, especially at great depths.

"We've never had to deal with a deep sea blow out like this before, especially at 5,000 feet below the surface," he explained.  "So no, we don't know what the long-term effects will be and we didn't know it 51 days ago either," he said.  

Venosa added that the risks and benefits for each action must be weighed. "And, no matter what you do there is going to be something that is going to be damaged."

The risk could be minimized, according to Kevin Costner. He called on lawmakers to consider the valuable role his machine could play. Earlier in the week he got some good news. BP, which has been testing the device, has placed an order for 32 additional machines that will soon be deployed in the Gulf.

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