Hoping to find a tiny solution for Iraq's oily mess

by Daivd Rumbach

SOUTH BEND — Like a lot of the soldiers returning from Iraq, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Talley brought back some cultural curiosities.p. One is a beat-up brass coffeepot he bought for $10 from some desert nomads near the ancient city of Ur.p. "It looks like an ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ lamp,‘’ said Talley, a voracious coffee drinker. "I have it sitting on a table at home.’‘p. But the truly unusual thing that Talley sent back to South Bend from Iraq is stored in a walk-in cooler in a science lab at the University of Notre Dame.p. Talley, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at Notre Dame, shipped home 432 pounds of oily sand from polluted sites near damaged oil fields.p. The nearly quarter ton of dirt is awaiting tests to see if naturally occurring microbes already present in the soil might be coaxed into gobbling up the spilled oil, he said.p. If so, the United States will have an innovative way, called bioremediation, to clean up a colossal environmental mess created in the aftermath of the coalition’s invasion of Iraq, and to do so at a fraction of the cost of other methods, Talley said.p. At issue are at least 20 "lakes’’ of oil that formed during firefights between Iraqi and coalition forces and also as the result of vandalism by retreating Iraqis. Some of the lakes cover several square miles and contain thousands of barrels of oil.p. "It’s something that has been done as the result of coalition activities,‘’ Talley said. "I think we have a responsibility to clean them up.’‘p. It was not for his specialized environmental expertise that the professor was called away to Iraq from his classes in mid-January.p. Instead, he was called up from active reserve to employ more conventional engineering and executive skills with the Army Corps of Engineers and the 416th Engineer Command.p. The 4,000 designers and soldiers in his command laid down a 230-mile fuel pipeline through part of Kuwait and into Iraq. It was, he said, the longest tactical line constructed in war in U.S. history. They built "bag farms’’ in the desert, huge temporary fuel storage facilities to supply the Army’s gas-guzzling fighting vehicles, such as the Abrams battle tanks that get three gallons to the mile. The chance to lend his environmental expertise to the cause came after the Army took control of the southern oil fields and the extent of the pollution left in the wake of the Iraqi retreat became apparent.p. He volunteered to work with the group called Task Force Restore Iraqi Oil to assess the environmental hazard caused by the lakes and to consider possible methods of cleaning them up. Because the Iraqi soil is so powdery, like "talc,‘’ the dumped oil has permeated to a depth of only about 12 inches, Talley said.p. Talley’s funding proposal points out that similar lakes were created in Kuwait during the Gulf War and that Kuwait did nothing to clean them up.p. Talley said he doesn’t want the same thing to happen in Iraq, a land that the United States and other nations are trying to rebuild as a safe place to live.

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