Special Reports

Kevin Costner may hold key to oil spill cleanup

LOS ANGELES — The “Kevin Costner solution” to the worsening oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may actually work, and none too soon for the president of Plaquemines Parish.

Costner has invested 15 years and about $24 million in a novel way of sifting oil spills that he began working on while making his own maritime film, “Waterworld,” released in 1995.

Two decades later, BP and the U.S. Coast Guard plan to test six of his massive, stainless steel centrifugal oil separators next week. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser welcomed the effort, even as he and Louisiana officials blasted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for delays in approving an emergency plan to build sand “islands” to protect the bayous of his parish.

“It certainly is an odd thing to see a ‘Kevin Costner’ and a ‘centrifugal oil separator’ together in a place like the Gulf of Mexico,” said actor Stephen Baldwin, who is producing a documentary about the oil spill and Costner’s device. “But, hey, some of the best ideas sometimes come from the strangest places.”

Meanwhile, “Avatar” director James Cameron has said that he would make his underwater vessels available, and actor-director Robert Redford appeared in a commercial, sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council, that uses the spill as a clarion call to move forward on clean energy.

It is not the first time Hollywood has come to the rescue with cutting-edge technology. Paul Winchell, a versatile ventriloquist and the voice of Tigger in “Winnie the Pooh,” was also an inventor who patented an early artificial heart in the 1960s. In 1940, glamorous movie star Hedy Lamarr helped design an un-jammable communications system for use against Nazi Germany.

Costner was unavailable for comment. But his business partner, Louisiana attorney John Houghtaling, said, “Yes, Kevin is a star, but he took his stardom and wrote all the checks for this project out of his own pocket. This was one man’s vision.”

Details of any contractual relationship with BP were not disclosed. Asked if the actor would charge for use of the machines, Pat Smith, a spokesman for Costner, said, “We don’t know yet. We haven’t had that discussion yet. This is only a test trial.”

Houghtaling said Costner bought the technology, which was originally developed with help from the Department of Energy, after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster and turned it over to a team of scientists and engineers for fine-tuning.

“The machines are essentially like big vacuum cleaners, which sit on barges and suck up oily water and spin it around at high speed,” Houghtaling said. “On one side, it spits out pure oil, which can be recovered. The other side spits out 99 percent pure water.”

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