Sheboygan geologist developed new ‘dirt’ to filter oil spills

by David Minor
Beacon Correspondent

LEE TROTTA, former president of the Wisconsin Groundwater Association, is retired and lives in Sheboygan.

A retired Sheboygan area geologist, Trotta’s career spans 45 years of work with government agencies and private companies in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  He credits his professors at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for fueling his interest in rocks and minerals.

“I had great professors and I fell in love with discovering the secrets that rocks hold.  The distinctive look and feel of rocks can tell a lot about how the rock and the earth surrounding it was formed.”

He landed his first job with the U. S. Geological Survey, a federal scientific agency overseeing the study of the nation’s landscape and natural resources.  “I was assigned to the State of Wisconsin where I examined rock samples, determined their age and evaluated water quality around them,” he noted.

Water quality and water conservation became the focus of Trotta’s professional work in the public sector.  “I administered the Minnesota Water Use Program for over 10 years,” he said.  “By looking at who is using water and how much, we developed a conservation plan that helped prevent over-use by industry and agriculture,” he continued.

Protecting and conserving water resources for wildlife and recreation have been important components of Trotta’s project work. 

“The Perrier bottled water company wanted to extract water for its natural bottled mineral water from a watershed in the Central Sand Plains region in Wisconsin shared with the Mecan River Fishery. The Department of Natural Resources has the power to grant extraction permits.  Based on the environmental impact statements we prepared, the permit was denied,” he said.

Gaining experience with his work to help prevent damage to wetlands, streams, rivers and shorelines, Trotta turned his attention to remediating the damage caused by industrial products finding their way into soil and water.

Trotta came close to inventing a new kind of dirt in developing the first hydrophobic dirt which he marketed for cleaning up oil pollution.

“The hydrophobic dirt happens to be sand, but it is a type of dirt, because hydrophobic sand does not occur naturally.  Hydrophobic dirt is sand coated with chemical compounds.”

“Hydrophobic sand has properties that repel water and allows oil to be pumped out of an oil spill.  The hydrophobic sand acts as a filter.  You dig a trench, apply the product and pump out the oil.”

The product, called “Oilseeker Sand,” proved effective and was marketed and distributed across the country until it was discontinued.

Trotta is proud of his efforts and the results his professional work has achieved in promoting responsible water use and discovering a new way to clean up oil spills.  

“Oil spills harm the environment by polluting shores, endangering wildlife and depressing tourism.  Oil lasts for decades and can contaminate drinking water,” he noted.

Advances in drilling technology and developments in geographic information systems have given geologists new tools to gather more data to analyze and learn more about rocks, mountains and soils.  

“Horizontal drilling has developed rapidly since the 1980s allowing scientists to drill and gather information about soil under structures where vertical drilling is not possible or permitted,” he said.

“Non-physical research technology using energy pulsation like sonar, gamma rays, electric pulses and reflection are in greater use.  

“Geographic information systems using satellite data transmission have helped utilities, mining companies and energy concerns do a better job of developing and managing natural resources using mapping and overlapping data sets.”

The fields of geology and planetary science, Trotta says, play important roles in exploring the planet Mars and help answer important questions.

“It is crucial to find out if there was water on Mars and if there is water on Mars,” he added.  

“If there was water on Mars, life did exist, if there is still water on Mars, humans could exist.  By examining the flow pattern and striations on rocks and mineral samples, a trained scientist could tell whether the sample was formed by water or volcanic action,” he concluded.

Trotta’s lifelong interest in the earth’s crust and what is underneath it continues in his retirement.  

He enjoys his association with geologists in academia and in private practice, consulting with the Friends of Black River Forest and guiding Wisconsin Groundwater Association tours in the nearby and highly-glaciated Kettle Moraine State Forest.

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