Huge oil-skimming ship makes Virginia stop en route to Gulf of Mexico


With no assurances it will be allowed to join the Gulf of Mexico oil spill cleanup, a Taiwanese-owned ship billed as the world’s largest skimming vessel was preparing to sail Friday evening to the scene of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The ship — the length of 3 1/2 football fields and 10 stories high — is designed to collect up to 500,000 barrels of oily water a day through 12 vents on either side of its bow. It docked in Norfolk en route to the Gulf from Portugal, where it was retrofitted to skim the seas. The ship and its crew of 32 were to leave Virginia waters Friday evening.

The owners of the “A Whale” said the ship features a new skimming approach that has never been attempted on such a large scale. They are anxious to put it to its first test in the Gulf.

“We really have to start showing people what we can do,” said Bob Grantham, project coordinator for TMT Group, a Taiwan-based shipping company.

The company is still negotiating with the Coast Guard to join the cleanup and does not have a contract with BP to perform cleanup work. The company also needs environmental approval and waiver of a nearly century-old law aimed at protecting U.S. shipping interests.

Environmental Protection Agency approval is required because some of the seawater returned to the Gulf would have traces of oil.

The Coast Guard, which has received more than 2,000 cleanup proposals, said the supertanker skimmer had survived a preliminary review and was being studied further.

Capt. Ron LaBrec said that initial review involves a number of government agencies, including the EPA.

One question, he said, is: “Will a large vessel like this be able to operate this in this kind of area?”

If the ship passes the additional review, its owners could then negotiate terms with BP. He could not provide an estimated timetable for the review would be completed.

The company said it also needs a waiver of the 1920 Jones Act, which limits the activities of foreign-flagged ships in coastal U.S. waters. The A Whale is Liberian-flagged vessel.

Grantham said TMT was hopeful it could secure the necessary approvals during the ship’s three-day passage to the Gulf.

The converted oil tanker has the capacity of holding 2 million barrels, but would limit its holding tanks to 1 million barrels for environmental reasons. Oil skimmed up by the tanker would be separated from seawater, then transferred to another vessel.

Its owners claim the ship could gulp oily water at a daily rate that nearly matches the skimming total to date in the Gulf.

Nobu Su, CEO and founder of TMT group, compared the massive ship to a whale scooping up small fish. He said cappuccino-colored oily water would be processed through several tanks to extract oil the color of espresso.

He said the ship was engineered to skim oil shortly after its construction in South Korea this year after he recognized the “catastrophic” oil spill would require extraordinary measures.

“I believe this spill is unprecedented and you need an unprecedented solution,” said T.K. Ong, senior vice president for TMT.

The effort received the endorsement of at least one Louisiana resident.

Edward Overton, a professor emeritus from Louisiana State University, was among the visitors at the port where the A Whale was berthed. He called the current cleanup inadequate.

“We need this ship,” he told TMT executives. “That oil is already contaminating our shoreline.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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