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 well site where an April 20 explosion began what is now the largest oil spill in Gulf history.
The vessel will cruise a 25-square-mile test site through today, 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.
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 nasty weather whipped up by distant Hurricane Alex.
The storm that stranded oil skimmers and mangled containment boom didn’t stop drilling work on two relief wells that BP says are the best chance at stopping the leak – in fact, drilling is a few days ahead of schedule, BP America spokesman Daren Beaudo said.
But the company is sticking with its early-to-mid-August time frame for completing the wells because of the uncertainties of hurricane season and the precision needed as the drills get deeper into the ocean floor.
Elsewhere 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 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.
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.