Giant skimmer tested by BP to clean up oil spill

A ship described by its owners as the world's largest oil skimmer was tested in the Gulf of Mexico at the weekend – and represents the latest hope for relief workers trying to clean up the mess from BP's Deepwater Horizon oil well, which has now been spewing crude into the ocean for 76 days.

The Taiwanese-owned vessel, A Whale, spent the weekend sucking up oily water from a 25-square-mile patch of sea just north of the leak site. Officials from the US Coastguard and BP were on board to assess its owner's claims that it could process half a million barrels of dirty water per day.

In theory, the 340 metre-long, 10-storey-high ship will collect polluted water from the surface of the sea using twelve slits, or "jaws" in the sides of its hull. The liquid will then be pumped through a series of tanks which decant the oil for storage on board, and then pump clean water back into the ocean. "In many ways, the ship collects water like an actual whale and pumps internally like a human heart," said Bob Grantham, a spokesman for TMT, the firm which owns the converted oil tanker. He described the skimmer as "the best solution to the Gulf of Mexico spill crisis" saying it would float across the sea "like a lawnmower cutting grass".

Test results were due by this morning. If all has gone to plan, the ship could indeed be a game-changer. The 21 million gallons of oily water that the vessel's owners claim it can clean each day would make it roughly 250 times more effective than the flotilla of converted fishing boats which have thus far been deployed against the spill.

At present, anywhere between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels of oil are gushing into the Gulf each day, and even when weather conditions are good, relief workers are able to contain or burn off only 25,000. In total, just half a million of the estimated three million barrels of the oil that have spilled since 20 April have been accounted for. There is no prospect of actually stopping the leak until August, when two relief wells are expected to be completed by BP.

A Whale, which operates under a Liberian flag and was converted from a normal oil carrier in a Portuguese shipyard at its owner's expense, arrived in Louisiana on Wednesday. However the US coastguard and BP did not allow it to commence skimming the Gulf until Saturday.

That angered those critical of the way the clean-up operation has been handled, most notably Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, whose shoreline is bearing the brunt of the spill. "They've used the war rhetoric," he said. "If this is really a war, they need to be using every resource that makes sense to fight this oil before it comes to our coast."

Not everyone is convinced that A Whale will work, however. Its size means it can be used only in areas where a half-mile radius of sea is kept clear of other ships. And no one knows if the treated water it pumps back into the sea will meet environmental standards.

Many experts say the nature of the Gulf spill means that skimmers are ineffective. "In a case like the Exxon Valdez spill, where you had a lot of oil on the surface in a confined area, a vessel like this could have gone in and sucked up a whole lot," said Dennis Bryant, a former US coastguard. "But in the Gulf, where the oil is pretty well dispersed over a vast area, I don't see how it's going to make a large dent."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telephone Sales Advisor - OTE £35,000

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telephone Sales Advisor is re...

Recruitment Genius: Appointment Maker - OTE £20,000

£14000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An office based Appointment Mak...

Recruitment Genius: Healthcare Assistant

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This provider of care services is looking for...

Recruitment Genius: Lettings Administrator

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Purpose of Role: To co-ordinate maintena...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent