Gulf Disaster: Sparking an Explosion of Innovation in Oil Cleanup?

Sickening as it is, the unfolding oil disaster due to the runaway gusher in the Gulf of Mexico (the terms “leak” and “spill” hardly seem adequate) is giving rise to a flurry of innovations in oil cleanup that should result in more effective responses to such crises in the future.

Watching BP and the federal government flounder around these first several weeks of the disaster, many individuals, small businesses, and local officials in the Gulf region have stepped forward with cleanup solutions, some sophisticated and well-thought-out, some not so much (see “Battling oil with ‘Cajun ingenuity.’” But the point I’m making is that it’s interesting to see how a crisis like this is useful as a stimulus for innovation.

I’ve been able to dig up a few CNN reports that show examples.

Dragonfly floating triage center for cleaning oiled birdsI was particularly struck by a report just today about two boatmakers who have quickly generated a kind of floating “M*A*S*H” facility for cleaning up oiled birds. The unit is based on the design of shallow-draft fishing boats that can easily maneuver in coastal waters and marshlands. Birds can be picked up, cleaned, and released right from the boat, without the time-consuming process of taking them into land-based facilities. (See “Boatmakers: Oil officials ignoring bird-saving boats“)

As is often experienced by innovators within large companies and organizations, the two Alabama boatmakers, Mark Castlow and Jimbo Meador, have run into problems getting uptake of their innovation by the large bureaucratic entities running cleanup efforts.

CNN made calls to find out why the solution has not been exploited by BP and the government. The CNN journalist says that, “The unified command center admitted that juggling all the offers of help has been a problem.”

One of the boatmakers says, “It’s one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever been involved in.” So far, they have been able to produce a prototype boat with funds from private donors, including musician Jimmy Buffet. From here on out, they plan to produce a new boat every seven days.

When I heard that actor Kevin Costner was getting involved in cleanup efforts, my first reaction was, “Oh, ha-ha, he should get together with Brad Pitt and George Clooney, ha-ha!” But thanks again to CNN, I have learned that, in reality, Costner and his colleagues at their company, Ocean Therapy Solutions, are actually selling BP a cleanup device that he and his brother, a scientist, developed during the early 1990s.

Costner’s machine is a device for separating oil from water. His largest machine has about a 5′ x 5′ footprint, weighs about 4,000 pounds, and can separate 200 gallons of liquid a minute, separating oil and water at 99.9 percent purity on either side.

Costner brought the machine to market over a decade ago, but couldn’t raise any interest until the current crisis. “I guess people just thought spills were over,” he tells Anderson Cooper of CNN. But to the contrary, he says, “Spills occur on a daily basis. Someone said enough oil spills on a daily basis that every seven months we’re having an Exxon Valdez out there. It’s just, out-of-mind, out-of-sight. It takes something like this to happen, where now we’re all pointed at it.”

Costner took his product for years to government agencies and private industry with no success, but now BP has ordered 32 of the devices. Costner tells CNN, “I’ve had to be kind of silent the past few weeks as this machine was put through a lot of hoops, and it just passed everything that BP could throw at it.” (See Cooper’s video interview with Costner, “Kevin Costner’s solution to oil spill.” See also Ocean Therapy’s news release, “BP to Proceed With Costner Centrifuge Devices to Cleanup Gulf Oil Spill.”)

AB — 23 June 2010

1947 Texas City Disaster and Its Effect on Industrial Safety

What should companies be doing to prevent disasters such as the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, with its tragic loss of life and environmental devastation? Granted, some disasters are just ‘Black Swans’ (see Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s writings on this topic) and can’t be predicted. But company safety procedures can go a long way toward mitigating the risks of accidents and their potential effects.

Having served as a company safety officer and having written about industrial safety some years ago, I was very interested in the experience published today by Robert X. Cringely on his I, Cringely blog — see “Doing the Right Thing.”

Cringely republishes a comment from one of his readers, a Monsanto engineer, who recounts how Monsanto learned from the calamitous April 16, 1947, industrial accident at Texas City harbor. That accident was caused by a fire on a ship, not by Monsanto. However, the resulting explosion destroyed Monsanto’s plant, along with other facilities at the port and thousands of homes. Almost 600 people were killed. (See the Wikipedia article on the Texas City Disaster and the series of photos at the Portal to Texas History.) Here’s an aerial view of the Monsanto plant and the port after the accident:

Monsanto plant and Texas City port after 1947 disaster

As a result of Texas City, Monsanto developed a stronger culture of safety, says Cringely’s reader:

They developed technology to better control chemical process. They developed standards to built safer facilities. They didn’t do this alone. They worked closely with other chemical companies. The whole industry invested in best practices and shared what they learned. When I started my job [in the 1970s] I was given a set of “standards” consisting of 3 binders, each 6 inches thick — serious reading.

Union Carbide’s terrible accident in Bhobal, India, in 1984 also became a crucial lesson for industry players. Soon after Bhopal, Monsanto officials had “reverse-engineered” the disaster and reiterated company policy, emphasizing that “all plants are to be built to USA or local country safety standards, whichever is better.”

Further studies within Monsanto after Bhopal had a profound effect on the company’s business:

The result of the study was sweeping changes in how much material was stored in each facility. Many processes and lines of business were deemed too risky to continue and were shut down. Monsanto walked away from tens of millions in business to reduce risk and improve safety.

Monsanto also instituted new programs to train and equip local first-responders where its plants are and to reduce emissions “far exceeding EPA rules.”

These comments emphasize the value of adopting the stance of a “learning organization.” What kinds of company policies and practices can go the furthest in preventing accidents, loss of life, and environmental damage — and in minimizing the effects when accidents do occur?

AB — 17 June 2010