Rough gulf seas dock some oil skimmers, but drilling goes on

By Tom Breen
Associated Press / July 5, 2010

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NEW ORLEANS — Cleanup crews across the Gulf of Mexico surveyed damage done by last week’s hurricane while contending yesterday with choppy seas that idled many of the boats dedicated to keeping oil from hitting vulnerable beaches and marshes.

Offshore skimming vessels were able to operate in Louisiana waters, but not off the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, officials said.

“We’ve got our guys out there and they’re docked and ready, but safety is a huge concern for us, especially with the smaller vessels,’’ said Courtnee Ferguson, spokeswoman for the Joint Information Command in Mobile, Ala.

The offshore skimming in those states has essentially been curtailed for nearly a week, as a result of weather generated earlier by Hurricane Alex, even though it was never closer than 500 miles or so to the spill.

Huge barges used yesterday to collect oil from skimming vessels were parked at the mouth of Mobile Bay, waiting for choppy conditions to subside as waves miles offshore rose to about 5 feet high.

Along the Louisiana coast, skimmers that were able to operate included the giant converted oil tanker known as A Whale.

Taiwanese shipping firm TMT, which owns the vessel, calls it the world’s largest oil skimmer. Yesterday was the second day of testing the ship’s abilities for US Coast Guard and BP officials who will decide whether to put it — and its purported capacity to suck up 21 million gallons of oil-tainted water per day — to work in the gulf.

Even the giant vessel is struggling with the weather, TMT spokesman Bob Grantham said yesterday in an e-mail.

“As was the case yesterday, the sea state, with waves at times in excess of 10 feet, is not permitting optimal testing conditions,’’ he said.

The vessel’s crew is hoping for calmer conditions, in order to test its skimming ability with a containment boom system designed to direct greater amounts of oily water to the ship’s intake vents. A decision on whether the ship can be used to help scour the crude from the gulf will be made in a few days, Grantham said.

The current spate of bad weather is likely to last well into next week, according to the National Weather Service.

“This should remain fairly persistent through the next few days, and maybe get a little worse,’’ meteorologist Mike Efferson said.

On the shore, beach cleanup crews were making progress on new oil that washed up with the high tides generated by last week’s bad weather.

In Grand Isle, about 800 people removed tar balls and liquid oil from 7 miles of beach, Coast Guard Commander Randal Ogrydziak said. “In a day or two, you wouldn’t be able to tell the oil was even there,’’ he said.

By Wednesday, Ogrydziak said, they should have a machine on the beach to wash sand where the oil was pushed ashore.

Crews have also been working to put containment booms thrown around by the storms back into place, he said.

So far, weather has not slowed drilling on two relief wells that could be the best hope of finally plugging what has become the worst oil leak in gulf history. BP officials have said they are running slightly ahead of schedule on the drilling, but expect delays from weather or other factors.

Early to mid-August is still the timetable for the completion of the drilling.

The US government is expected to take over control of the central information website on the spill response (, which has been run jointly by various agencies and BP for the 2 1/2 months since the rig explosion.

The Department of Homeland Security wants a one-stop shop for information that is completely overseen by the government.

BP and the federal government are part of a unified command that is working together to try to contain the oil gusher, but the government has been directing BP at every turn.

BP is helping pay for the current website. The government could still bill BP when it takes over the site.