Letting Microbes Do The Dirty Work "It's A Totally Organic Approach To Cleaning Up The Environment," Said Willits.

Posted: October 24, 1994

HAINESPORT — Jim Willits calls his workforce "the bottom of the food chain." Working night and day to clean up an oil leak at a Pemberton bus garage, his crew members wallow around in sludgy, slimy conditions.

They aren't the least bit bugged by the greasy environment.

That's because they are bugs.

Willits works in the growing field of bioremediation, in which microscopic bacteria and fungi eat oil and other toxic wastes and eventually transform the stuff into less toxic or nontoxic chemicals. About 18 months ago, he joined Tabasco Drilling to head a new bioremediation division.

About 160 bioremediation firms are listed in a national Environmental Protection Agency database. About 25 to 30 firms are based in New Jersey or have offices in the state, said Andrew Marinucci, a research scientist with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Though small - the bioremediation division employs five - the company has cleaned six spills in New Jersey, said Willits, including the National Auto Dealers Exchange facility in Bordentown and several for Harriett's Oil Co. in Medford. Its human workforce includes Willits' father, Charles, the former head of the chemistry department at Rutgers University in Camden; Cliff Owens, a retired inorganic chemistry professor at Rutgers; a soil scientist; and field workers.

About 30 cleanups, including one at the Pemberton Board of Education bus garage, are in progress.

In addition to cleanups and consulting, the company designs and builds bioremediation systems.

Willits, 42, said that wiping up nasty spills with microbes is clean living.

"It's a totally organic approach to cleaning up the environment," said Willits, dressed in well-worn blue jeans and denim shirt. "There's no adding anything to the environment that isn't already there. It's totally hip and totally real."

It's also totally old. For millions of years, strains of bacteria have been feasting on organic waste. Tabasco and other bioremediation firms simply let nature do its work. There is some work involved in harnessing bacteria to do the dirty work, such as adding nutrients and oxygen.

Both the EPA and DEP list bioremediation as an "innovative technology," considered an appealing alternative to incineration and landfills in the right situations.

In 1990, the EPA established the Bioremediation Field Initiative as part of a strategy to increase the use of bioremediation commercially and experimentally, said Michael Forlini, of EPA's Technology Innovation Office.

"Lots of times, people are apprehensive about the usage of incineration to treat waste," he said, "and this provides an alternative."

In addition, the microorganisms don't have to be imported or genetically engineered. They naturally occur, and in most cases, they only need to be promoted by fertilizer and oxygen. But not just any fertilizer will do the trick.

"It's not as simple as just going out and putting fertilizers on the ground," Willits said. "We use special nutrients."

The process is not much to look at and so quiet you cannot tell it is taking place. At the Pemberton school garage, the only signs are drilled holes and a large blue "batch" tank. An underground well system connects to the tank. It pumps air and nutrients onto the contaminated area to accelerate the bacteria's growth.

In addition, technical crews are constantly testing and monitoring the process to make sure the mix of nutrients and oxygen is just right for the job.

Bioremediation is not a cure-all. For example, it cannot be used as a first-response method for those big, highly publicized spills that occur from time to time. In addition, the process takes time, anywhere from three months to three years, Willits said.

The first commercial application of bioremediation-promoting fertilizers came in 1989, after the Exxon Valdez supertanker spilled about 10 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound in Alaska. The EPA used bioremediation along the shoreline as the last phase of the cleanup. The EPA now regularly uses oil-eating bacteria at Superfund sites.

Microbes are most effective munching petroleum and hydrocarbon waste. They potentially could be used in up to 10,000 to 15,000 oil spills each year, the EPA said. In 42 oil spills in New Jersey, bioremediation has been considered as a cleanup option, said the DEP's Marinucci.

Bioremediation also has been used to treat leaking underground storage tanks. About 15 percent of the nation's underground tanks that store petroleum, heating oil and other materials are leaking, and many more are expect to leak in the next 5 to 10 years, the EPA said.

Environmentally correct reasons aside, bioremediation in many cases is less expensive than traditional cleanup methods. About 50 percent cheaper, Willits said.

"I've seen bioremediation cost $25 to $100 per . . . ton," Marinucci said. "Incineration somewhere between $500 to $700 per yard . . . ton, landfilling to a waste dump these days, $300 per ton. I'd say it's a quarter of the price."

Industry estimates the savings at 50 percent, said Joe Crosby, vice president of Harriett's, a retail fuel-oil distributor, which has done about $50,000 worth of bioremediation business this year.

"At first I was skeptical until I read about it and totally understood it," Crosby said. "When Tabasco came to me, showed me the cost-savings factors to our customers, that's what sold me."

Harriett's now uses bioremediation exclusively to clean up oil spills. It eliminates the need for big trucks and other equipment, and, most important, eliminates waste product, Crosby said.

"The big advantage of bioremediation, other than that you can still use the soil for anything you want to, is that the only liability is to make sure it's clean," Crosby said. "The other way, we never lose liability, and as an oil company, we take that seriously."

In Tabasco's laboratory, where cookie jars are converted into bacteria storage vats, Willits, a Mount Holly resident who grew up in Cherry Hill, talks about bioremediation as if it were a religion.

The division, located in the Hainesport Industrial Park, is in the thick of developing and patenting equipment custom fit for bioremediation. The cookie jars contain bacteria immersed in different contaminants, from waste oil to coal tar. They are observed for how the bacteria perform under different conditions and how they evolve, Willits said.

An environmental engineer for 20 years, Willits took a seven-year hiatus

from the business world and moved to Oregon to "raise a family and vegetables," and figure out what to do next.

Willits, his wife, Laura, who is a writer, and his teenage son and daughter decided to move back East less than two years ago for the schools, he said. But the question about what to do with the rest of his life lingered.

When he learned the EPA was starting to promote bioremediation, Willits said, he realized that he could get involved. He started lobbying Joe Tabasco, whom he previously worked with, and doing freelance bioremediation for the firm, which primarily does drilling and environmental testing.

"It took about six months," Willits said. "What basically did it was when I completed a project in Bordentown, and got the DEP approval. That impressed him a lot."

Tabasco said bioremediation was becoming more important in the overall business.

"I'd say gross receipts from bioremediation are approaching 35 percent what we are doing today," Tabasco said. "Probably in six months, it will be at 70 percent. A year from now, I would suspect bioremediation will play an even larger part of what we are doing in the company."

Willits said the bioremediation division was starting to look at long-term goals. It is testing other uses for the process: Municipalities could clean contamination collected from street cleaning. Businesses, such as car washes, could dissolve industrial waste. The division is also experimenting with using bacteria to clean up waste from metal contaminants.

"It's a totally open field," he said. "We're just beginning to scratch the surface."

Marinucci said Tabasco seemed to be on the cutting edge of the technology.

"It appears that they are approaching this from the right point of view," he said. "There are some companies that will sell you snake oil. They're not that kind of an outfit. They are probably one of the more academically supported operations."

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