The Old Man and the Secret

An eccentric Texas inventor discovered a magic formula he believed could save the earth. Fifteen years after his death, scientists and entrepreneurs are betting he was right.

June 2010: More than 21 years ago, on March 24, 1989, the tanker  Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Alaska, permanently fouling the once-pristine Prince William Sound with more than 10 million gallons of crude oil. Senior executive editor Paul Burka suggested that I find out what could be done to clean up the next big oil spill, since virtually nothing tried in Alaska seemed to have worked. And thus began an initially frustrating but ultimately exhilarating year-long odyssey. Eventually, I got a tip about a little Texas company that had oil-eating microbes they asserted could digest the Valdez’s oily mess.

The bugs had been collected from across the globe by a University of Texas professor of microbiology and marine science since 1969. The Texas company claimed to have something else, a mysterious “biocatalyst” that could cause the microbes to rapidly multiply exponentially. If true, this would overcome the major problem facing those wanting to use microbes to clean up pollution—boosting the “biomass” so that clean-ups could be accomplished in weeks and months instead of months and years.

I discovered a few facts about the unnamed inventor—“the old man”—and these were sufficient to lead me to his name, his obituary, and his role co-founding another company, still extant, that produced a “soil activator” that appeared to work with soil microbes, much as the professor’s did for ocean-dwelling microbes. Eventually I found a handful of small companies in Texas alone with links to the old man that produced similar biocatalysts, commonly known as enzymes, that were used in agriculture, bioremediation of polluted sites, and sewage treatment. All seemed to have another property: They were said to produce a sequestered and highly reactive form of oxygen in prodigious amounts.

Is it possible that the answer to remediating BP’s Deepwater Horizon continuous oil spill has been hiding in plain sight in the pages of TEXAS MONTHLY for the past two decades? I think it is not only possible but also probable. On May 25, 2010, almost twenty years to the day after my story was published,  Scientific American released a feature story online echoing the scientific consensus with this headline: “ Slick Solution: How Microbes Will Clean Up the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.”

The experts’ conclusion: The microorganisms would operate very slowly, because the scientists quoted knew of no way to get the naturally occurring bugs to multiply faster and thus to do their work more rapidly. And they certainly didn’t know about the “secret” Texas enzymatic biocatalyst that seemingly supercharged microbes to vastly increase their numbers and their apparent ability do to in months what might otherwise take years.

For more than sixty years, a handful of small Texas businesses have safely and effectively used the enzyme-producing, microbe-sparking process described in “The Old Man and the Secret” to cause naturally occurring microbes to multiply rapidly and do a variety of disagreeable jobs, including cleaning up

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