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Matthew Stein Headshot

Time for America's Dunkirk!

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I had my hair cut last week. While she was cutting my hair, Kelli and I were talking about the Gulf Oil Spill. As she swept the clumps of hair off her salon's floor she said, "that is a nice contribution". Explaining herself, Kelli proudly pulled out a large garbage bag full of hair that she was ready to ship off to the Gulf to help suck up some of that waste oil before it poisons more water and kills more wild life. Obviously my little bit of hair is not going to make much of a difference in the Gulf, but large chunks of the Gulf are dying every day, and we simply can't afford to keep waiting for BP to come up with the perfect solution. We've got to attack this problem on multiple fronts with wartime speed and priority. IT'S TIME FOR AMERICA'S DUNKIRK!

In the battle of Dunkirk during late May of 1940, the advancing German army had cornered what remained of the retreating British, French, and Belgian forces, and was closing in for the kill. When Churchill addressed the British House of Commons, he said that "the whole root and core and brain of the British Army" had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In what has been referred to as "The miracle of Dunkirk", 42 British warships, 39 flat bottomed Dutch "coaster" ships, and all available civilian vessels were hastily assembled for the evacuation of the allied forces. The civilian portion, referred to as "the little ships of Dunkirk", was a flotilla of about 700 pleasure craft, fishing boats, and some private merchant marine ships. These "little ships" played a key role in transporting troops from the shallow waters to the waiting battle ships, and carried over 20,000 troops across the English Channel. Original military estimates were that they would only be able to save roughly 45,000 troops before being cut off by the German army. However, in this miracle of civilian and military cooperation (the "spirit of Dunkirk") they were able to rescue 338,226 soldiers from death or imprisonment!

It is this "CAN DO" attitude and spirit of cooperation that are badly needed today! BP knows how to discover oil, drill and pump oil, and distill it, but they do not know how to effectively clean it up, nor does our government. It is the private sector that knows how to do this dirty job, yet for the most part they have been cut out of it. How long must we watch BP's string of failures while perfectly good technologies lie waiting in the shadows? Why not make it "all hands on deck" while we pursue all viable options and techniques in parallel? When the Dunkirk evacuation took place, each and every seaworthy civilian boat was welcomed and well used--no viable option was turned away!

"When Saddam Hussein's Revolutionary Guard ignited oil wells in the deserts of Kuwait, it was not the military, the oil companies or the Coast Guard that put out those fires, but experts like Red Adair's company and Boots and Coots who were called upon to extinguish the fires. The same is true now. The Coast Guard and BP are obviously not experts in stopping the leak or cleaning up the gulf. It is high time that we bring in private environmental remediation companies who are in this business and perform these services every day of their lives."
-- Texas State Representative Debbie Riddle (R - Tomball)

So far, in the Gulf we've seen bogus beach cleanup workers show up a few hours before Obama's visit to the beach, only to be released a few hours later once the president had left the scene. We've seen "no fly" zones, reporter intimidation, and employee "gag orders" designed to cover up the extent of the oil spill, not help contain it. BP has repeatedly lied or knowingly mislead the public about the size and extent of this disaster. Surprise! Surprise! It turns out you can't trust an oil company!

Two Dutch companies have been on endless standby, offering their proven technology for capturing oil from the oil spill. They have fully equipped oil spill response vessels utilizing giant booms and skimmers designed specifically to deal with oil spills. In the Dutch method, oil and seawater are sucked up in huge volumes onto the ship, where the oil and water are separated and the water is pumped back into the ocean while the oil is stored in the tanker for commercial processing. The so-called "problem" is that a tiny percentage of oil is still left in the seawater that is returned to the ocean, and American regulations will not allow that to occur (regulations specify that this water is to be stored for later processing). Let me make sure you get this straight. Current US government regulations allow us to drop millions of gallons of highly toxic dispersants (several times more toxic than the oil it is supposed to disperse) into the Gulf, but we can't return cleansed seawater to the ocean that is a thousand times cleaner than the scummy oil filled water that it is replacing, just because it still has a tiny residue of oil in it? Someone must have their head up their _ss!

Within a few days after the Deepwater Horizon sunk, and the oil started flowing into the Gulf, I watched a video about the oil spill relief technology funded and promoted by actor and director Kevin Costner. After weeks elapsed with all of Costner's efforts falling on seemingly deaf BP ears, it took a televised congressional testimonial on the part of Costner to finally get BP to commit to giving his technology a shot.

Costner's not alone in his frustration. There are numerous private sector solutions that are languishing in the sidelines while their company's team members are chomping at the bit to get their chance to assist with this vital do-or-die cleanup effort. Some of these "solutions" are rather amateur, but may well be worth the effort, like the "chopped hay" oil clean up solution promoted by at least one YouTube video. Other efforts are quite professional, from private sector companies with proven technologies for tackling this solution, such as the ones offered by Planet Resource Recovery. These people have spent years developing a proprietary non-toxic nano-particle formula that breaks the bond between oil and the soils, rock, or water that it is mixed with, or stuck too. They have teamed up with a other private sector companies to form a consortium called the "Gulf Spirit Group" to provide turnkey oil spill remediation services. Like Costner, they have created a video to show what they can do, but unlike Costner, they do not have the "star power" to get their message in front of congress, and so far their presentations to BP appear to have fallen on deaf ears. If our country truly supports the free market and private innovation, why are we not letting all qualified remediation firms and reasonable looking technologies give it a shot and prove to us what they can do? The private sector may well be our "little ships of Dunkirk", but only if the feds and BP give them a chance.

Come on America, let's take this bull by the horns and show the world what American ingenuity, cooperation, and fighting spirit can do. Let's turn the tide on this tragedy, make the miracle happen, and turn the Gulf Oil Spill into America's Dunkirk!

Matthew Stein is the author of When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency from Chelsea Green. For more information, visit and

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