Believing in the unexpected is Darryl Carpenter's way

Using his experience in road construction, Darryl Carpenter came up with an unexpected (and now internet-famous) idea for oil cleanup

Nothing to Sneeze At If Darryl Carpenter is right, old hay could help soak up the Gulf’s epic oil spill By Jason Dehart Originally published in the Aug/Sep 2010 issue of 850 Magazine

The well is capped, and the infamous oil slick staining the Gulf may be dissipating naturally, but if something like the Deepwater Horizon accident happens again, Darryl Carpenter hopes an idea of his will have a better hearing.

Carpenter, 54, of Bristol in Liberty County, is vice president of C.W. Roberts Contracting, a highway paving company that has been in business for 35 years and currently has annual revenues of about $200 million. He is an area manager and has run the Freeport division for about 10 years. All told, Carpenter has been with the company for 21 years.

“We originally put an office here when St. Joe Company started building WaterColor,” he said, referring to the premier landmark sea village built a decade ago. “(C.W. Roberts) is a major road contractor in Florida. We have seven offices from Fort Myers to Freeport. We do road paving, grading, site work and utility work. We’ve done work for the U.S. Air Force at Eglin and also for the Army Corps of Engineers.”

Probably one of the company’s most notable and recent paving projects, Carpenter said, was the work it did for the new Beaches of Northwest Florida Airport in Panama City.

Credentials like these, forged from years of “in the arena” work, ought to give Carpenter and his team a certain amount of clout among other engineers. He hoped to parlay that clout into helping British Petroleum and the U.S. Coast Guard find a way to soak up the millions of gallons of oil that came to the surface of the northern Gulf of Mexico from a wellhead some 5,000 feet down.

But now that the well is under control, Carpenter’s idea may have to wait.

During the crisis, all sorts of quirky ideas for either sealing the spewing pipe itself or absorbing the surface oil came from the blogosphere or from armchair engineers. One idea for cleaning up the surface involved using booms of pantyhose stuffed with hair clippings. Another called for inflating tire tubes inside the pipeline. Perhaps the most drastic, off-the-cuff idea for sealing the gusher itself involved detonating a nuclear bomb at the wellhead — something that was never seriously considered by U.S. officials.

The U.S. Coast Guard captured surface oil little by little and set it ablaze to burn it up, and oil booms were deployed to protect various coastal areas.

Carpenter hoped his idea isn’t something to sneeze at. His plan called for taking some old feed hay, sending it out on barges and boats to the nearest oil sheen, and blowing it into the water. There, wind and wave action would blend the hay with the oil, and after a period of hours or days, the hay would soak up the oil. Once sufficiently absorbed, the hay would be recovered and hauled off to an incinerator.

Carpenter knows it works — at least on a small scale. He came up with the idea one day just driving along the highway.

“I was riding along, thinking about ways to help clean it up,” he said. “We use a lot of hay mulch for erosion protection at our roadside projects. It’s what we use in our everyday business. So I called Otis Goodson (an erosion control specialist) and said we need to think of a way to stop this oil and suggested hay.”

Carpenter said he instructed Goodson to put some water and oil in a bucket, put some hay on it and see what it does.

“And Otis goes home and does this and calls me up and says the hay got all the oil out of the water, so that got us all excited,” he said.

Carpenter and Goodson demonstrated the idea to Walton County emergency management officials and representatives from BP.

“We did a little experiment — put some water in a large bowl, put oil and hay in it, and it cleaned it right up,” Carpenter said. “The sheriff was amazed by it and got a representative from BP and the Coast Guard to come back, and we did the demonstration for them. BP seemed interested.”

Video taken during the small-scale experiments wound up on YouTube. The video registered more than 1.6 million hits by mid-June.

“I was definitely surprised by that,” Carpenter said of the YouTube “fame.”

The video even attracted national media attention. On June 7, Carpenter discussed his idea with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, who also interviewed veteran oil engineer Nicholas Pozzi, chairman of WoW Energy Solutions. Pozzi lent credence to Carpenter’s theory by saying that hay sucks up 80 percent of its weight in oil and that it’s known the world over for its absorbent properties.

“It is nature’s most effective way and safe way to pick up oil,” Pozzi said in the interview.

The million-dollar question now is exactly how much hay would be needed to clean up a spill over thousands of acres of ocean.

“That’s been the question everybody has asked. It would take a massive amount of hay,” Carpenter said. “At least a million tons. We can’t clean up the whole spill, but whatever we can do will help. If we get 5 percent or 10 percent of it, it’s that much that doesn’t get to our beaches.”

Carpenter said the actual application would use old hay that is no longer suitable for feed. He would have liked testing the idea out on the open ocean, perhaps in a 10-acre to 100-acre section. He submitted his plan to BP at the height of the crisis, but at press time there were no barges of hay heading into the Gulf.

If ever given the green light, such a countermeasure would involve deploying the hay near the source of the oil spill and not on the beaches.

“Our thought is, let’s fight it as far away as possible,” Carpenter said. “We think we should fight it at the source. I don’t want to see it reach the beach at all. It would be an economic disaster for Florida. I know a lot of fishermen in Destin, and the bookings are way down. Charter-fishing fuel pricing is high. They’re in a dilemma already, and I’m sure some of them will go away.”

Like many other people who live, work and play along the coast, Carpenter has a particular soft spot for that industry. He loves to fish and doesn’t want to see the fishing industry get “hammered.”

“I do lot of offshore fishing,” he said. “Chuck Roberts (founder of C.W. Roberts Contracting) is also an avid fisherman. We have an interest in the Gulf. We like to fish and go to the beach.”

Once the hay is set out and used, it would have to be picked up again. Carpenter thinks it could be scooped back up and sent to local incinerators for disposal. The oil would then serve a second useful purpose by helping provide electrical power for the region.

“We’ve talked to the Panama City/Bay County incinerator, Gulf Power in Pensacola and the Florida DEP about burning this hay in an incinerator and using it to make electricity so it would actually be used to produce energy,” he said. “DEP said it would be acceptable. We actually talked to another company about extracting the oil so it could be used, and the hay to be made into pellets for energy. We’ve talked to companies that can do this.”

Carpenter said a lot of red tape would have had to be cut for his hay idea to actually float.

“All the regulatory agencies would have to be involved, and ultimately the Unified Command (the Coast Guard and BP) would have to give the green light,” he said.

Once past all the red tape, there would still be the problem of moving tons of hay from the shore to the oil slick.

“We have the equipment and people available to do it,” Carpenter said. “We’ve been in contact with barge companies (to haul the hay out), and we have blowers lined up, and the hay removal equipment, some skimmers and net boats that could pick the hay up.

The unprecedented nature of this oil spill made cleanup an uncertain and possibly much more difficult endeavor, Carpenter said.

“It’s uncharted territory,” he said. “I can tell you, I don’t think anybody thought this could happen. I’m a proponent for drilling in the Gulf, but we’ve got to do it safely.”