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Commentary: A low-tech method for Gulf oil spill cleanup

VENICE, La. — Lionel Stevenson spent most of Tuesday humping bundled lengths of bright yellow tubular floats, connected like strings of giant sausages.

"Pretty low-tech," said Stevenson, stunned that the primary defense along Plaquemines Parish's vulnerable coast from an oily catastrophe would be these plastic booms he was loading onto shrimp boats for $10 an hour. "Stone age," he said.

An armada of shrimpers were being dispatched from moorings on the Brenton Sound to lay miles-long links of these floating dams off Plaquemines' meandering coastline. Other boats were sent out armed with equally unsophisticated tools to sop up floating oil.

Essentially, erstwhile shrimpers tossed absorbent stuff into the water, then hauled it out, laden with oil gook. Fishing guide Thomas Peters, who watched the shrimpers from his own boat Tuesday, described the less-than-high-tech process: "It was like they were throwing giant tampons into the water and pulling them back out."

All day, flatbed trucks hauled trailers' full of white, gauzy barrel-sized cylinders down the long peninsula road to the Venice docks, some 60 miles south of New Orleans, where BP had hired so many out-of-luck fishermen and their boats. They had enlisted into a decidedly low-tech effort.

Besides plastic booms and giant tampons, a plan has been floated -- wrong word perhaps -- to dredge up some barrier islands just off the coast as a kind of earthen fortification against the big slick. And there were reports this week that chicken feathers and horse hair and alpaca wool and human hair were collected and woven into oil-absorbing fabrics, a great hairy effort to save the Gulf coast. Petco promised to send a ton of pet hair daily to help soak up spewing oil.

But the juxtaposition of fur ball technology against the nearly (but not quite) miraculous engineering that led to this catastrophe was nearly jarring. The Deepwater Horizon, a $300 million vessel floating unmoored 50 miles south of the Louisiana coast, kept in place by computers and satellite positioning, was able to drill miles down into a seabed 5,000 feet below the surface with stunning precision.

But when so many fail-safe gizmos malfunctioned and the oil vomited from the depths and threatened Gulf Coast habitats and (now it seems) Florida beaches and reefs, the oil industry revealed a massive technology gap. The engineering employed to get us out of this mess seemed decades behind the engineering that gave us this disaster.

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