As the massive Persian Gulf oil slick creeps southeast,threatening Saudi Arabia's coastline and desalination plants, atleast three U.S. bioremediation companies are talking with theSaudi government to help clean up the spill.

Alpha Environmental Inc. of Austin, Texas, is negotiating withSaudi authorities for a contract "worth millions," said EugeneDouglas, Alpha's president. Alpha is ready to send to the Gulfup to two tons of a proprietary mix containing naturallyoccurring oil-eating microbes. The entire operation is expectedto take months, said John Zeiner, its controller.

Alpha isn't alone. Two other companies -- EnvironmentalRemediation Inc. of Baton Rouge, La., and Sybron ChemicalsInc., of Birmingham, N.J. -- are in hot pursuit of contracts withthe Saudis. And Environmental and Sybron may benefit fromhaving been selected by the Environmental Protection Agencyas the only bioremediation companies to conduct field trials inAlaska's Prince William Sound following the 1989 Exxon Valdezoil spill. The companies were chosen following laboratory testsfrom among 39 companies, including Alpha. Still, the field trialsyielded inconclusive results regarding bioremediation'seffectiveness.

The heavy crude oil in the Gulf slick does not readilyevaporate, and the seas have not been rough enough to breakup the slick, Douglas said. Depending on where the slick comesto rest, it may pose an environmental threat to coral reefs,algae flats and mango swamps along the Persian Gulf coastline,he said.

Bioremediation uses microbes that gobble up oil and break itdown into a series of water-soluble fat compounds. Mostcommercially available biomediation processes use naturallyoccurring, pollutant-eating bugs. However, some companies,such as Envirogen Inc. of Lawrenceville, N.J., and GeneralElectric Co. of Fairfield, Conn., are developing geneticallyengineered microbes. Most bioremediation efforts are used inconjunction with the mechanical removal of oil, but they canalso be used alone in places inaccessible to heavy equipment,such as swamps or war zones, Douglas suggested.

Because opportunities to test oil bioremediation arise only withunpredictable and usually accidental spills, its effectivenessunder the field conditions is episodal and the protocols of itsuse are still being developed. Bioremediation showed its worthon the high seas in mopping up an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexicolast June. It worked again clearing oil from the Texas coastlinefollowing a spill last August in Galveston Bay. But thescientifically controlled EPA field tests in Prince William Soundshowed no effect, said Albert Venosa at EPA's Risk ReductionEngineering Laboratory in Cincinnati.

If a U.S. company gets the contract to clear up the Gulf spill,and if it is successful, the publicity will benefit the industry,said Kate Devine, executive director of the AppliedBioTreatment Association, an industry group.

-- Rachel Nowak BioWorld Staff

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.