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World's largest oil skimmer heads to Gulf

June 30, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
More oil washed ashore onto Gulf of Mexico's beaches by waves pushed by Hurricane Alex. The government implemented its latest cleanup hopes Wednesday on a huge new piece of equipment: the world's largest oil-skimming vessel.

The Taiwanese-flagged former tanker named the "A Whale" is the length of 3? football fields and stands 10 stories high. It just emerged from an extensive retrofitting to prepare it specifically for the Gulf, where officials hope it will be able to suck up as much as 21 million gallons of oil-fouled water per day.

As the monstrous vessel made its way toward the Gulf coast, large waves churned up by distant Hurricane Alex left Alabama beaches splattered with oil and tar balls the size of apples. The rough seas forced most smaller skimming boats into port for a second consecutive day, putting many cleanup crews at a standstill.

The ship looks like a typical tanker, but it takes in contaminated water through 12 vents on either side of the bow. The oil is then supposed to be separated from the water and transferred to another vessel. The water is channeled back into the sea.

But the ship has never been tested, and many questions remain about how it will operate. For instance, the seawater retains trace amounts of oil, even after getting filtered, so the Environmental Protection Agency will have to sign off on allowing the treated water back into the Gulf.

The vessel, owned by the Taiwanese shipping firm TMT Group, was completed as a tanker earlier this year in South Korea. But after the Gulf spill, the company's CEO and founder, Nobu Su, ordered it changed into a giant skimmer. The vessel was sent to Portugal for the refit and embarked for the Gulf as soon as it was finished.

The ship was expected to arrive Wednesday in Louisiana coastal waters, where TMT officials planned to meet with the Coast Guard to plan a tryout of the ship.

The Coast Guard will have the final say in whether the vessel can operate in the Gulf. TMT will have to come to separate terms with BP, which is paying for the cleanup.

Along parts of the Gulf, red flags snapped in strong gusts, warning people to stay out of the water, and long stretches of beach were stained brown from tar balls and crude oil that had been pushed as far as 60 yards from the water.

Oil deposits appeared worse than in past days, and local officials feared the temporary halt to skimming operations near the coast would only make matters worse ahead of the July 4 holiday weekend.

As of Wednesday, between 71.2 million and 139 million gallons of oil have gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from the leak caused by the April 20 explosion aboard the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon. The blast killed 11 oil workers on the platform, which was owned by Transocean Ltd. and leased by BP PLC.

Although skimming operations and the laying of oil-corralling booms were halted across the Gulf, vessels that collect and burn oil and gas at the site of the explosion were still operating. Efforts to drill relief wells that experts hope will stop the leak also continued unabated.

The weather delayed efforts to bring a third vessel, the Helix Producer, out to the broken well head. The ship can capture up to 25,000 barrels of oil a day and connects to the leak through a flexible hose that allows it to leave the site quickly in case of a hurricane.

Latest Developments:

  • On Wednesday, Alex was a Category 1 hurricane - the least powerful type. By Wednesday afternoon, it had sustained winds of 90 mph. The National Weather Service predicted the storm would make landfall on the Mexican Gulf coast and south Texas late Wednesday or early Thursday, possibly as a Category 2 hurricane.
  • In Louisiana, heavy rains pounded the Grand Isle region, causing flash flooding in low-lying areas. Long bolts of lightning streaked the dark skies, keeping oil-cleanup operations locked down. A pounding surf had moved some of the boom that lines the beach.
  • In Florida, lumps of tar the size of dinner plates filled a large swath of beach east of Pensacola after rough waves tossed the mess onto shore.
  • Oil deposits appeared worse than in past days, and local officials feared the temporary halt to skimming operations near the coast would only make matters worse ahead of the July 4 holiday weekend.

AP contributed to this report.


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