`Bilge Pill' helps save aquatic life

Calvert waterman, biotech firm devise chemical treatment

From gunk to marine food

Hockey puck-size tablet breaks up oil and emulsifies it

Natural resources

July 06, 1999|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

As thousands of boaters this summer take to Maryland's waterways, from the lazy Susquehanna River to the sprawling Chesapeake Bay, many will surely find their bilges fouled by stagnant water, gunk and oil.

That raises a delicate question for those sensitive to the damaging effects oil and fuel discharges can have on marine life: What to do with bilge oil?

"It's no secret that a lot of people just pump it overboard. People will be people," said Mike Harris, a Calvert County waterman who makes a living taking charter fishing groups out on his vessel, the Compensation.

The common -- and some argue illegal -- practice of purging into the water the oil that builds up in the bottom of boats, from sailing sloops to charter vessels and old tugboats, got under Harris' skin.

"I just got to thinking there's got to be a much more environmentally safe way to dispose of this stuff that is practical and inexpensive," he said.

Now there is. Or at least that is what Harris and Athena Environmental Sciences Inc. of Catonsville say. Together they've come up with the "Bilge Pill."

The "pill," which resembles a hockey puck, is made of biodegradable detergents, which break down the oil into smaller particles, and emulsifiers, which suspend the oil's chemicals so they don't evaporate or sink.

The Bilge Pill is placed in a mesh bag and lowered into the bilge. The motion of the boat while on water agitates the pill, and it begins breaking oil into micro-particles that can be safely discharged into the water. There it can be devoured by naturally occurring marine bacteria.

"The oil literally becomes a carbon food for bacteria," said Sheldon Broedel, chief executive officer, science officer and co-founder of Athena, based at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Technology Center, an incubator for small high-technology companies.

The pill is expected to hit shelves in Boat/US stores this month. The East Coast chain is the first retailer to place an order, said Chuck Quinlan, a Calvert County-based marketing expert and friend of Harris'. Quinlan has been helping the waterman pitch the pill to retailers. It will sell for about $12.

Quinlan said other boating supply retailers are considering the product for their inventories. Whether the Bilge Pill will emerge a hot seller remains to be seen.

It faces competition from about a dozen other established products that also claim to solve bilge oil buildup. These include the popular Boat Armor and West Marine Bilge Cleaner products.

So Harris, 51, and his new company, Bilge Tech Inc., aren't counting on a rags-to-riches story yet. But the potential market is large. In Maryland alone there are more than 400,000 registered recreational and charter craft.

Nationwide, there are an estimated 17 million registered boats less than 100 feet long. (Most boats bigger than that have oil and water separation systems and pump bilge oil into holding tanks for disposal.)

Quinlan said the sales strategy is to build market share in Maryland first, particularly with the recreational market, and then to tackle commercial boaters. East Coast and national marketing efforts would follow if the pill is a home-state success, Quinlan said.

Privately held Athena, which came up with the "ingredients" for the pill, will manufacture initial supplies under an agreement with Bilge Tech, which will handle sales and marketing.

Broedel at Athena says the product has strong potential, and is helping his company move in a direction they had not considered before developing the Bilge Pill.

"Once Mike came to us with his idea for a longer-lasting cleanser that was environmentally safe, we immediately thought, `Hey, this sounds like a pretty good marketing opportunity,' " recalled Broedel. "It was a problem we were pretty sure we could develop a solution for that would be effective."

He said the company tested a number of existing bilge cleaner products and found that they didn't break down or emulsify oil enough for the micro-organisms. Most cleaners lasted only about a day in the bilge.

The Bilge Pill was designed to last up to 60 days, and has no toxic effects on fish, aquatic plants and other marine life, Broedel said.

William Jones, co-founder and president of Athena and a senior scientist at the University of Maryland Center for Marine Biotechnology in Baltimore, said the company has received strong interest in the product from boaters aware of the effects oil can have on marine life.

He noted that oil discharged into the water from a boat will throw off harmful chemicals "in three different directions."

Some of the compounds evaporate, polluting the air, while other chemicals find their way into the food chain, including fish, crabs and eventually people, Jones said. Tar-based compounds sink and build up in the mud.

"When you have hundreds of boats discharging oil, there is an enormous cumulative effect on a body of water," he said.

Jones said company scientists are proud to have developed a product they believe addresses a critical environmental problem in heavily traveled waterways.

And Harris, who met Jones and Broedel after an introduction from a family friend, said he feels a little flush of pride every time fellow watermen express their surprise and delight at how effectively the pill has cleansed their boat bilges.

"I've been on water more or less since I was 8 years old, so I've seen a lot of oil and fuel leak into the bay," Harris said.

"Whether or not it's a big success, I feel like I've done my part trying to come up with a practical solution."

Pub Date: 7/06/99

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