The " Kevin Costner solution" to the worsening oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may actually work, and none too soon for the president of Plaquemines Parish.
Costner has invested 15 years and about $24 million in a novel way of sifting oil spills that he began working on while making his own maritime film, "Waterworld," released in 1995.
Two decades later, BP and the U.S. Coast Guard plan to test six of his massive, stainless steel centrifugal oil separators next week. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser welcomed the effort, even as he and Louisiana officials blasted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for delays in approving an emergency plan to build sand "islands" to protect the bayous of his parish.
"It certainly is an odd thing to see a 'Kevin Costner' and a 'centrifugal oil separator' together in a place like the Gulf of Mexico," said actor Stephen Baldwin, who is producing a documentary about the oil spill and Costner's device. "But, hey, some of the best ideas sometimes come from the strangest places."
Meanwhile, "Avatar" director James Cameron has said that he would make his underwater vessels available, and actor-director Robert Redford appeared in a commercial, sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council, that uses the spill as a clarion call to move forward on clean energy.
It is not the first time Hollywood has come to the rescue with cutting-edge technology. Paul Winchell, a versatile ventriloquist and the voice of Tigger in " Winnie the Pooh," was also an inventor who patented an early artificial heart in the 1960s. In 1940, glamorous movie star Hedy Lamarr helped design an un-jammable communications system for use against Nazi Germany.
Costner was unavailable for comment. But his business partner, Louisiana attorney John Houghtaling, said, "Yes, Kevin is a star, but he took his stardom and wrote all the checks for this project out of his own pocket. This was one man's vision."
Details of any contractual relationship with BP were not disclosed. Asked if the actor would charge for use of the machines, Pat Smith, a spokesman for Costner, said, "We don't know yet. We haven't had that discussion yet. This is only a test trial."
Houghtaling said Costner bought the technology, which was originally developed with help from the Department of Energy, after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster and turned it over to a team of scientists and engineers for fine-tuning.
"The machines are essentially like big vacuum cleaners, which sit on barges and suck up oily water and spin it around at high speed," Houghtaling said. "On one side, it spits out pure oil, which can be recovered. The other side spits out 99% pure water."
If all goes according to plan, he said, "We could have as many as 26 machines dispatched throughout the gulf. Our largest machine is 112 inches high, weighs 2 ½ tons and cleans 210,000 gallons a day of oily water. We are hoping to have 10 machines that size out there — meaning we could potentially clean 2 million gallons of oil water a day."
That kind of talk has intrigued BP, the party responsible for the well blowout that caused an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history. "BP has agreed to test Mr. Costner's machines," BP spokesman Mark Proegler said. "Of course, they need to meet regulations with respect to discharge."
With oil washing up on a portion of southeastern Louisiana's swampy edges, word of Costner's devices and their potential capabilities has triggered intense lobbying over where they should be stationed first.
High on the list of prospective sites is Plaquemines Parish, where "we've already lost 24 miles of marshland," Nungesser said. "Everything in it — frogs, crickets, fish and plant life — is dead and never coming back."
Houghtaling said he was working on a deployment strategy. "Some people want the machines placed out on the blue ocean where the oil is surfacing. Others want them placed along the coastline."
In the meantime, frustration escalated Thursday over the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' delay in authorizing dredging to build a chain of barrier islands with sand to protect sensitive coastal areas.
Parish leaders, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), a member of the Senate committee that oversees the Corps, demanded immediate approval of the plan they estimated could cost about $50 million.
"The Corps just doesn't get it," Vitter said in a statement. "Thick oil has already gotten behind our existing barrier islands and is infiltrating our marsh. Yet the Corps has no sense of emergency."
Corps spokesman Eugene Pawlik said that the agency is using emergency rules to expedite the request, but that it still has to comply with national environmental laws, including soliciting comments from other agencies.
Nungesser dispatched an urgent request to the Obama administration to force the Corps to expedite its review process. He also reached out to Costner, the man of the hour in Louisiana's bayou country.
"I have Kevin Costner's cellphone number and I'm going to call him and ask him to hold a press conference about the Corps' lack of response in this time of emergency," Nungesser said. "He is a caring man, and people know and respect him. Maybe he can help us."