Thunder Bay·Audio

Northern Ontario researchers test floating wetlands as method to clean up oil spills

New research taking place at the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) could lead to a new way to clean up oil spills in freshwater lakes.

Research project taking place at Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora

Matt McCandless heads up the experimental lakes program.
A $4 million research project is looking at whether engineered wetlands could clean-up spills in freshwater lakes. Matt McCandless from the Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora told the CBC's Heather Kitching all about it. 6:46

New research taking place at the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) could lead to a new way to clean up oil spills in freshwater lakes.

ELA executive director Matt McCandless said researchers at the facility are testing engineered floating wetlands as a possible oil spill clean-up method.

"Even in the best situations, the cleanup doesn't actually remove all of the oil that has spilled," he said. "Really, our project is to look at what happens to the remainder of the oil, and how to clean it ... and that's where the wetlands come in."

McCandless said the floating wetlands are, essentially, special platforms onto which wetland plants have been transplanted (or, in some cases, the platforms are seeded). The plants are then left to grow naturally, and the roots will extend below the raft.

"This root zone under the plants, under the floating wetlands, supports many, many types of bacteria," he said. "And many of these bacteria are just naturally-occurring in lakes and wetlands already, but they have the ability to actually digest hydrocarbons like oil."

Proof of concept

"And that's really what we're going to be studying, is how these bugs, how these bacteria in the root zone of these floating wetland platforms actually eat and digest and ultimately get rid of oil."

McCandless said the floating wetlands will be deployed in parts of the ELA where experimental oil spills have been created.

"We will be regularly taking samples of the water to see how clean it is, regularly taking samples of the root zone to find out how healthy the wetland plants are, and to find out how the bacteria that live in the roots are cleaning things up," he said.

But McCandless said it may be a while before the floating wetlands are in use outside of the ELA.

"It's really, right now, sort of a proof of concept," he said. "From there, it needs to go to a little bit more engineering design so that they can be used in real-world situations."

"This project that we are doing is going to take a couple of years," McCandless said. "Hopefully, after that, we'll be able to see some real-world applications of this."