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Continued: In Bemidji, a research site reveals secrets of an oil spill

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: June 15, 2014 - 7:12 PM

Nearby, a wetland that in 1979 was layered in oil now looks like any other wilderness pond. The thick oil had been vacuumed away after the rupture. Microbes that thrive in wetlands have broken down much of the rest of the pollution, researchers say.

Recent studies have looked at the genetics of Bemidji bacteria. Nicole Fahrenfeld, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rutgers University, has worked with other scientists to get DNA profiles of “known hydrocarbon degraders.”

The research revealed where certain bugs are degrading the most oil. Other researchers are still studying the oil-loving bacteria, and looking for new ones.

“Everybody would like to find the new bacteria with a new ability,” Fahrenfeld said.

 

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090 • @ShafferStrib





 

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  • At the site of 1979 spill near Bemidji, scientists have dotted the landscape with bore holes to study of the lingering underground pollution. Here, crews bore 27 feet below the surface to survey the groundwater for oil from the 1979 spill.

  • A rust-coated drilling rig, which dates to 1956, has bored dozens of test wells at the site of a 1979 spill near Bemidji, Minn. It has helped scientists produce research discoveries, including some that have influenced U.S. pollution cleanup policy.

  • USGS hydrologist Jared Trost stood among the many bore holes scientists use to study the movement and breakdown of crude oil.

  • What they found underground

    What scientists have found underground

    Scientists have published hundreds of articles in scientific journals using data collected at the Bemidji oil spill site. Here are the key discoveries over three decades.

    • Underground bacteria feed on oil and degrade it even in the absence of oxygen. Iron in the soil helps this process.

    • Bacteria eat petroleum fast enough to keep a subsurface plume of contamination from spreading. But microbes speedily devour only some petroleum compounds such as toluene, a toxic solvent.

    • If oil seeps into a water table, it can float there for decades.

    • Trying to suction oil from the water table via wells can produce large quantities of oil-tainted water, leaving things no better.

    • Crude oil compounds in a wetland got chewed up quickly by the rich microbe life.

    • When bacteria eat crude oil, they emit a gas that converts to carbon dioxide as it works though the soil. Gas-measuring devices on the surface can reveal the pace of the breakdown of subsurface oil.

    • Bugs that chew up buried crude oil sometimes free up arsenic, a toxic heavy metal. Scientists are studying whether other minerals react with arsenic to hold it in place.

    • Studying the genetic fingerprint of bacteria shows which strains work hardest at degrading petroleum.

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