Brine: Work has changed prairie

Tulsa World - - Our Lives - Kelly Bos­tian 918-581-8357

and meth­ods around oil pro­duc­tion wa­ter spills world­wide — brine that is, salt wa­ter, some­thing that “has cost Ok­la­homa a lot of land,” he said.

The eas­i­est mark re­lated to Sublette's work is the Eco­log­i­cal Re­search Cen­ter that opened in 2004 at the pre­serve. Oth­ers, if you know where to look, are re­me­di­a­tion sites across the prairie where once brine-scarred “moon­scapes” are trans­formed back into grass­lands. More, his re­search con­tin­ues to carry the in­flu­ence of TU and an un­likely part­ner for the oil and gas in­dus­try, The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy, to best-prac­tices on oil and gas fields world­wide.

“In a nut­shell, I can't say enough good things about Kerry Sublette,” said Har­vey Payne, who as one-time di­rec­tor for the pre­serve in the early 1990s shud­dered at the idea of “some well-mean­ing ivory tower pro­fes­sor” com­ing to look at oil pro­duc­tion and pos­si­bly stir up a po­lit­i­cal hor­nets' nest.

“He per­son­ally raised, I'm sure, over $1 mil­lion that he has put into re­me­di­a­tion on the pre­serve,” he said. “Bureau of In­dian Af­fairs, oil pro­duc­ers, peo­ple around the world use the tech­niques he's de­vel­oped here at the pre­serve and that's re­ally some­thing,” Payne said.

Pre­serve Di­rec­tor Bob Hamil­ton said the re­search cen­ter hosts sci­en­tists from uni­ver­si­ties far and wide each field sea­son that look at ev­ery­thing from birds and botany to oil and gas.

More than 180 pub­lished pa­pers have re­sulted from work car­ried out at the re­mote sta­tion and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing old ranch bunkhouse that was re­stored to house the sci­en­tists in res­i­dence.

“If you have to point to one per­son, Kerry Sublette is the rea­son why that fa­cil­ity ex­ists,” Hamil­ton said, ac­knowl­edg­ing the ma­jor role played by the Univer­sity of Tulsa and The Na­ture Con­ser­vancy for the roughly $1.5 mil­lion fa­cil­ity plus main­te­nance en­dow­ment.

“Peo­ple were col­lect­ing sam­ples and run­ning them back to TU, or to their uni­ver­si­ties and Kerry said, `what we re­ally need is a re­search fa­cil­ity out here.' It's come to be that the pre­serve and the re­search fa­cil­ity has been more in­flu­en­tial in re­me­di­a­tion re­search than any other sin­gle site world­wide,” he said.

On the wide-open prairie, the real ac­tion hap­pens be­low the sur­face, Sublette said.

A mir­a­cle from the prairie for the oil fields, put in the sim­plest terms and fo­cus­ing on one tiny — but crit­i­cal — el­e­ment of a broad ap­proach is the ad­vent of what might be called Sublette's mi­crobe ranches.

“A bug ranch,” Sublette laughed at the sug­ges­tion, but ac­knowl­edged it's a loosely ac­cu­rate char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of what hap­pens with Bio­trap tech­nol­ogy de­vel­oped at the univer­sity and now in com­mer­cial use in­ter­na­tion­ally.

“It's very im­por­tant for us to un­der­stand what's go­ing on with the mi­cro­bial com­mu­nity. Whether it's work­ing the way it should, whether it's re­spond­ing the way it should,” he said. “We have the ca­pa­bil­ity now to pro­vide ir­refutable proof that the mi­cro-or­gan­isms in a cer­tain en­vi­ron­ment are de­grad­ing a cer­tain com­pound.”

No ques­tion, the prairie has been a trans­for­ma­tive land­scape for the man who stood alone in the dark un­der the night sky with the cam­era on his tri­pod on the Tall­grass.

He's com­pleted im­por­tant work there and he's loved and lost there. He met his wife of 18 years, Judy, on the prairie. She passed away last fall but years ear­lier she was part of a can­cer sup­port group at­tended by Sublette's first wife, who also died of can­cer.

“Af­ter my (first) wife died I took all the mem­bers of her sup­port group, in groups of two and three, on a tour of the Tall­grass Prairie,” he said. “We'd spend the day out there, driv­ing around, see­ing the bi­son, hik­ing around. So, on a trip out there I got to know Judy and I thought, `this is a nice lady.' I got to know her a lit­tle bet­ter, and we started see­ing more of each other, and it de­vel­oped into a re­la­tion­ship.”

His en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sult­ing busi­ness will take more of his time now and he still will lead pro­fes­sional train­ing sem­i­nars for agen­cies, cor­po­ra­tions, and coun­tries world­wide, he said.

There will be hun­dreds and hun­dreds of shots to come.

“Now I just try to fill my time with as much pro­duc­tive or fun things to do as pos­si­ble,” he said. “I'm sure it's go­ing to be that way for a long time.”

KELLY BOS­TIAN/Tulsa World

Univer­sity of Tulsa pro­fes­sor Kerry Sublette talks about a brine spill re­me­di­a­tion site with Tall­grass Prairie Pre­serve Di­rec­tor Bob Hamil­ton.

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