NEW ORLEANS – 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 at the site by two other vessels and then burned or transfered to other tankers.
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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