Giant oil skimming ship being tested in Gulf

NEW ORLEANS The Taiwanese vessel called, "A Whale" began showing its capabilities 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 giant vessel will cruise a 25-square-mile test site through the weekend. The /*Coast Guard*/ and /*BP*/ are waiting to see if the skimmer can live up to its makers' promise of being able to process up to 21 million gallons of oily water a day.

The ship, which is 10 stories high and as long as 3 1/2 football fields, works by taking in water through 12 vents, separating the oil and pumping the cleaned seawater back into the Gulf.

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.

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.

Latest Developments:

  • A New Orleans federal judge is trying to streamline the legal process for more than 30 lawsuits arising from the Gulf oil spill. An order filed this week from U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier temporarily consolidates the lawsuits for pretrial purposes. The suits represent only a fraction of the more than 200 lawsuits filed in courts in Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere since the BP rig exploded and sank.
  • Churches and other nonprofit organizations are among those filing damage claims with BP for the Gulf oil spill crisis. The nonprofits say they have been hurt because parishioners and other donors aren't able to give as much money because of the impact of the spill on the Gulf's economy. But the British oil giant says it isn't yet sure how it will handle those claims.

AP contributed to this report.

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