A Temple University researcher who discovered why nearly 20,000 gallons of oil is still trapped under the beach in Alaska will return this summer to test a way to make it disappear.
Michel Boufadel, an engineering professor and director of the Center for Natural Resources Development and Protection at Temple, has been leading teams of researchers and students to Alaska since 2007. They have studied why large patches of oil trapped between levels of sand along Prince William Sound have remained there more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil.
Two years ago, Boufadel found that low oxygen levels in some areas of the beach prevented bacteria that break down oil from living there.
This summer, Boufadel’s team will inject hydrogen peroxide and other nutrients into the beaches. The hydrogen peroxide will break down into oxygen and allow bacteria to grow in the area.
“We predict that the oil will biodegrade and the beach will become clean again,” Boufadel said.
Boufadel said those bacteria could make the oil biodegrade in just a few years, rather than the 50 to 100 years it might otherwise take. Though the beaches in Alaska are quite different than beaches in the Gulf of Mexico region, where Boufadel has helped with oil spill cleanup efforts as well, he expects the method could be applied there too.
“Our method, if it works in Alaska, which has more complicated beaches, I have strong belief that it will work in the Gulf of Mexico,” Boufadel said.
Boufadel just won a $1.5 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to test his method in Alaska.