World’s largest oil skim­mer ar­rives for test in Gulf spill

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Tom Breen and Jay Reeves

NEW OR­LEANS — With hur­ri­cane-whipped waves push­ing more oil onto the Gulf of Mex­ico’s once-white beaches, au­thor­i­ties pinned their 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 3½ 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.

“It is ab­so­lutely gi­gan­tic. It’s un­be­liev­able,” said Louisiana State Uni­ver­sity en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ences pro­fes­sor Ed Over­ton.

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 day, putting many cleanup crews at a stand­still. Boom­ing and skim­ming op­er­a­tions likely will re­main grounded through to­day, fed­eral of­fi­cials said.

The big new 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.

“This is a no-brainer,” Over­ton said. “You’re bring­ing in re­ally dirty, oily wa­ter and you’re putting back much cleaner wa­ter.”

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, Nobu Su, or­dered it changed into a gi­ant skim­mer. The ves­sel was sent to Por­tu­gal for a re­fit and em­barked for the Gulf as soon as it was fin­ished.

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

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.

“I don’t know whether it’s go­ing to work or not, but it cer­tainly needs to be given the op­por­tu­nity,” Over­ton said.

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The for­mer tanker ‘A Whale,’ con­verted into the world’s largest oil skim­ming ves­sel, is an­chored Wed­nes­day at Boothville, La.

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