Testing is likely to continue for the rest of this week on the ability of a massive Taiwanese-owned supertanker to help clean up the worst oil spill in US history.
The tanker — known as A-Whale — was unable to perform as planned over the weekend because of high seas caused by the remnants of Hurricane Alex.
However, it is now operating in a 64.75km² area just north of the BP-owned Macondo Deepwater well site where an April 20 explosion killed 11 workers and triggered an uncontrolled oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico.
Owned by Taiwan Maritime Transport Co (TMT) the tanker stands 10 stories high, measures 340m in length and has a nearly 60m beam.
The Washington-based Heritage Foundation said the vessel was built in South Korea as a supertanker for transporting oil and iron ore and was refitted in the wake of the spill with 12 5m-long intake vents on its bow to skim oil from surface waters.
Heritage said that the refitting was done in Portugal and that the tanker was flagged in Liberia.
TMT group chief executive officer Nobu Su (蘇信吉) has been quoted as saying that A-Whale will float across the Gulf “like a lawn mower cutting the grass.”
It can process some 79.4 million liters of oil-contaminated water per day. The entire fleet of oil skimmers now working for BP in the Gulf has only a fraction of its capacity.
However, A-Whale needs approval by the US Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before BP can put it to work because the ship gathers contaminated seawater, separates the oil into tanks and then discharges the cleaned water back into the ocean.
The problem is that while the vast majority of the oil is removed, the discharge retains a “minor amount of oily residue.”
EPA rules state that any residue greater than 15 parts per million is impermissible.
“They [EPA] elevate perfection above the need for speed,” Heritage said.
A-Whale arrived in the Gulf on Wednesday last week and started testing to see exactly how much residue remained in the water after its cleaning efforts. However, bad weather has delayed the testing and it seems doubtful that testing will be finished before this weekend.
Arguing that a small amount of residue is far preferable to millions of liters of crude oil floating free, officials in the coastal states want the EPA to cut its red tape. In what has been taken as a positive sign, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said on Monday that he had “high hopes” for the tanker.
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