Montana company vies for helping clean up oil

Billings Gazette

by Tom Howard

SHEPHERD — Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., says he’ll do what he can to help a Montana company that is vying to play a role in cleaning up the oil released after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tester met Friday with Bruce Kania, chief executive of Floating Islands International. The 11-year-old company has developed patented floating islands that purify polluted water by mimicking the properties of natural wetlands. A 250,000-square-foot floating island, Kania told Tester, could be harnessed to treat up to 1 million gallons of oil-fouled water per minute. Now that the flow from the Deepwater Horizon oil well has been contained and the gusher may soon be permanently plugged, public attention is turning to cleanup efforts throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

After taking a brief tour of one of the floating islands set up near Kania’s home, Tester said there has been no shortage of ideas on how to stop the gusher and clean up the mess.

“A lot of the ideas seem like pie in the sky,” Tester said. “But this one is real.”

If Floating Islands International is successful, Tester said, it would be an example of Montana innovation playing a role in cleaning up the nation’s worst environmental disaster.

Earlier this week Tester sent a letter asking the U.S. Coast Guard to consider using Floating Island International’s technology to assist in the cleanup.

The floating structures can act as “oil sponges” that help clean up the pollution. The Montana company has also developed a type of oil boom that can prevent oil from polluting wetlands, Tester’s letter says.

Floating Islands International has submitted three white papers to the Coast Guard explaining how its technology can be used in the cleanup. The Coast Guard recently contacted the company and plans to do further evaluation.

Floating Islands International’s technology is well established. More than 4,000 structures are in use throughout the world, Kania said. The largest so far is a 39,700-square-foot island installed in Sheepy Lake, Calif. The structure provides alternative habitat for threatened shorebirds in addition to cleaning up contamination in water.

The 250,000-square-foot floating island that has been proposed for use in the Gulf of Mexico has been aptly named the Leviathan.

If the Coast Guard OKs using the technology as part of the cleanup efforts, Floating Islands International and its licensees could construct a 250,000-square-foot structure within 180 days, Kania said.

He described the technology, which is trademarked under the name BioHaven, as mimicking a wetland’s natural water-cleaning processes.

“It cleans water the same way that natural wetlands do,” Kania said. “We are able to concentrate and speed up the process. Despite the island’s relatively small footprint, they make a significant difference.”

Frank Stewart of Bozeman-based Stewart Engineering, said the floating islands have the potential to make a significant contribution to the cleanup.

“The long-term impact of oil contamination exposure on many species of marine life and waterfowl is unknown,” Stewart said. “But we do know how to supplement the natural remediation processes. We should do so, and we should do so immediately.”