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Entrepreneurs with 35,000 Ideas for BP


Thousands of would-be saviors have responded to the call for fixing the spill, but the triage process is too slow and timid, they say

BP has received almost 35,000 ideas in just over a month on how best to clean up the millions of gallons of oil from the biggest spill in U.S. history. So far, only four have made it into testing.

That has left people such as Ken Griffin and James Reindl frustrated. Both run companies that specialize in oil cleanup products they say are more efficient and less toxic than what's in use in the Gulf. They contacted BP through its online suggestion box to offer help. Griffin on May 29 received a form letter saying his product is being considered, a month after he submitted it. Reindl has heard nothing, he said. "We think we have something to contribute," Griffin said. "It's just not at all clear what the chain of command is down there."

The proposals face a grueling—some say sclerotic—vetting, called the Alternative Response Technology Triage Process. The suggestions gathered through phone calls and the website, run jointly by BP and the U.S. government, are fielded by 70 workers. The most promising are then reviewed by 43 engineers from BP, the U.S. Coast Guard, and other U.S. agencies, according to Graham MacEwen, a BP spokesman.

If the ideas—which range from soaking up oil with human hair to enlisting oil-eating microbes—are seen as practical and don't overlap with proposals already being explored, they're sent to smaller teams of engineers to see if they can be applied, MacEwen said. About 800 proposals have made it to this stage, with just one-half of 1 percent of those in testing, he said. Most are duplicative or infeasible, MacEwen said.

Reindl is co-owner of Ecser Holding, maker of a devulcanized-rubber product called Spill-Cure that can absorb up to eight times its weight in petroleum products, he said. Reindl understands it's tough sorting through so many suggestions. "Still," he said, "it's frustrating for a group like us. It's like, 'Guys, we're right here.' " Griffin's company, Impact Services, makes Pristine Sea, a clay-based product that binds crude into soft clumps that can be skimmed from the water. The company says it has been tested in the Baltic Sea, and Louisiana State University is currently testing Pristine Sea on samples from the Gulf spill. "When things like the spill happen, everybody comes out of the woodwork with their own brand of magic dust, but often it hasn't been tested," says Greg Broda, executive vice-president at Impact Services. "We have a viable, tested, nontoxic product, and we're having a problem getting anyone to listen to us."

One of the few ideas already in testing is centrifuge technology developed by actor Kevin Costner and his scientist brother Dan. The Costners didn't go through the technology triage process. They had help from Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, a district in Louisiana. Nungesser sent a letter on Costner's behalf to Doug Suttles, BP chief operating officer for exploration and production.

Director James Cameron, whose film Titanic gave him experience with the use of underwater remote vehicles, was invited to the Environmental Protection Agency with a group of scientists June 1 to discuss possible solutions. Even with help, Costner's firm has met with delays, and open-water testing won't start until this week.

The bottom line: Ideas on how to clean up the Gulf spill have been flooding in. But few have made it into actual testing, frustrating entrepreneurs.

Wechsler is a reporter for Bloomberg News in London. Lauerman is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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