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Jul 3, 2010 4:22 PM by Chris Welty

Giant Oil Skimmer Being Tested in Gulf of Mexico

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Gulf of Mexico cleanup crews working to block
millions of gallons of oil from reaching land may soon have a giant
on their side, if a weekend test of a new skimmer goes well.
The Taiwanese vessel dubbed "A Whale," which its owners
describe as the largest oil skimmer in the world, began showing its
capabilities on Saturday just north of the Macondo Deepwater well
site. An April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig there
killed 11 workers and began what is now the largest oil spill in
Gulf history.
The vessel will cruise a 25-square-mile test site through
Sunday, according to TMT Shipping, the company that created A Whale
by retrofitting an oil tanker after the explosion sent millions of
gallons of crude spilling into the Gulf.
The U.S. Coast Guard, along with BP, are waiting to see if the
vessel, which is 10 stories high and as long as 3 1/2 football
fields, can live up to its makers' promise of being able to process
up to 21 million gallons of oil-fouled water a day.
The ship works by taking in water through 12 vents, separating
the oil and pumping the cleaned seawater back into the Gulf.
"In many ways, the ship collects water like an actual whale and
pumps internally like a human heart," TMT spokesman Bob Grantham
said in an e-mail.
A Whale is being tested close to the wellhead because officials
believe it will be most effective where the oil is thickest rather
than closer to shore.
The ship arrived in the Gulf on Wednesday, but officials have
wanted to test its capability as well as have the federal
Environmental Protection Agency sign off on the water it will pump
back into the gulf. Although the ship cleans most of the oil from
seawater, trace amounts of crude remain.
The wait has frustrated some local officials, who say the
mammoth skimmer would be a game-changer in preventing drifting
streams of oil from washing ashore on vulnerable coastlines.
During a Thursday tour of the inlet to Barataria Bay, Louisiana
Gov. Bobby Jindal said it was exasperating to have A Whale anchored
offshore instead of being put to immediate use.
"They've used the war rhetoric," Jindal said aboard a
Louisiana state wildlife boat floating in oil-slicked waters near
Grand Isle. "If this is really a war, they need to be using every
resource that makes sense to fight this oil before it comes to our
coast."
A smaller flotilla of oil skimmers was back at work along the
Gulf coast Saturday, after being forced to stand down for several
days because of nasty weather whipped up by distant Hurricane Alex.
The bad weather also delayed the hookup of a vessel called the
Helix Producer at the wellhead. The ship can collect up to 25,000
barrels of oil a day, which would virtually double the amount now
being captured or burned at the site by two other vessels.
Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's
point person in the oil spill response, said Friday crews will
resume getting the Helix Producer in place over the weekend, with
production starting around July 7.
Elswhere on the Gulf coast, environmental Protection Agency
administrator Lisa Jackson visited Pensacola Beach on Saturday, her
first trip to Florida since the explosion and her sixth trip to the
Gulf.
Jackson watched as workers in yellow and orange vests flicked
penny-sized gobs of tar into nets, sifting them to filter out the
sand and smaller pieces of tar. Officials overseeing the cleanup
showed her how the oil had been buried by successive waves of sand,
and how more layers with tar were under the top layer of sand.
Jackson said that despite the level of contamination on the
beaches, it should be up to local officials to decide whether they
should be closed. Officials in Escambia County have posted oil
warnings at beaches but not closed them.
"From a commonsense perspective there is nothing that I am
going to be able to tell you in chemical lab that you can't learn
about the safety of the water from a bathing purpose by looking at
it and smelling it," she said.
Reporters pressed Jackson on whether she would wade into the
water Saturday based on what she had seen.
"I would not go into the water today," she said.

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