By Tom Breen
Sunday, July 4, 2010; A13
NEW ORLEANS -- A supertanker retrofitted to scoop up oil began testing its capabilities in the Gulf of Mexico Saturday and could soon be a major asset in the effort to block millions of gallons of crude from reaching shore.
The vessel, dubbed A Whale and described by its owners as the largest oil skimmer in the world, began collecting oil just north of the site where the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and touching off 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 built A Whale. The vessel is 10 stories high and is expected to be able to process up to 21 million gallons of oil-fouled water a day. It takes 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.
The ship arrived in the gulf on Wednesday but was not immediately put to use because its capabilities had not been tested, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency had not signed off on the water it will pump back into the gulf. The ship cleans most of the oil from seawater, but 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 tour Thursday of the inlet to Barataria Bay, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said it was exasperating to have the vessel anchored offshore instead of being put to immediate use.
"They've used the war rhetoric," Jindal said aboard a 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."
A smaller flotilla of oil skimmers was back at work along the Gulf Coast on Saturday, after being forced to stand down for several days because of weather whipped up by distant Hurricane Alex. The bad weather had also delayed the hookup of an oil-collecting vessel, the Helix Producer; retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said on Friday that crews get that ship in place over the weekend.