Bioremediation Bug Market Booming

Cleaning up America's environmental nightmares could be cheaper if testing of toxics-eating microbes is successful

FOWLER'S BEACH, Del. -- Environmental researchers donned sunscreen and T-shirts this summer and turned a private beach in Delaware into their laboratory. Scientists from the University of Cincinnati and the Environmental Protection Agency are trying to prove that giving nature a gentle push can clean up contamination more cheaply.

The scientists are evaluating how well bioremediation technologies -- which use naturally occurring microorganisms to degrade hazardous substances -- work on destroying the toxicity of oil. They are increasing the number of indigenous microorganisms on certain sections of the beach to see if they can speed up nature's toxic-eating talents.

If successful, the study would be the first project "to establish statistical proof that bioremediation works and to define the rate at which it works," said Albert Venosa, an EPA scientist working on the project.

And for a bioremediation industry trying to prove microorganisms are a viable alternative to incineration and other hazardous waste cleanup methods, scientific documentation could boost the billion-dollar industry.

The market for using bioremediation technologies to clean up waste in the United States is expected to grow about 5 percent a year through 1998 -- when it will be worth $1.4 billion, according to an analysis by Norwalk, Conn.-based Business Communications Company. One segment expected to grow at 17 percent a year is the business of growing bugs especially for eating waste. This market is expected to be worth $100 million by 1998.

Buck Cox's firm BioSystems Technology Inc. in Blacksburg, Va., is one of a couple of hundred firms that provide bioremediation services. Cox said the EPA has been the driving force in the industry, which 10 years ago consisted of about a dozen firms.

The biological cleanup technology was developed in the 1960s, but had what Cox refers to as "monumental failures" from studies that didn't understand the environment.

But the Environmental Protection Agency has done a great job of promoting bioremediation, said Cox. "Many firms see the EPA as saying bioremediation will be the major cleanup technology of the future."

There is good reason to expect bioremediation technologies to catch on. First, it is about 10 times less expensive than incinerating hazardous waste. Another advantage is the technology's ability to detoxify hazardous substances instead of merely moving them. Also, bioremediation can be used at contaminated sites and is less disruptive to the environment than incineration, excavation or dumping.

However, bioremediation technologies must have one thing to work -- time. Nature, no matter how much scientists try to speed up the process, must run its course. Scientists are hoping to determine from the Delaware study, to be complete at the end of October, the rate microbes "eat" toxic materials.

Above: Microbes eat away at the toxics on the Delaware beach testing site.

Left: An EPA scientist checks the progress of the cleanup.


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