Updated: Friday, 25 Jun 2010, 7:14 PM EDT
Published : Friday, 25 Jun 2010, 1:38 PM EDT
NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) - The 'A Whale' is headed South after a stop in Hampton Roads. Her crew's mission is to remove some of the oil from the spill in the Gulf of Mexico before it reaches the shores.
The 'A Whale', originally an ore and oil carrier, was converted into the world's largest oil skimming vessel just one week ago. Her size and capacity, which is more than 250 times that of modified fishing boats, makes her the largest oil skimming vessel. The ship — the length of 3 1/2 football fields and 10 stories high — is designed to work 40 to 50 miles offshore and collect oily water 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 theory is that in one or two days this vessel can skim as much oil as current resources have skimmed in two months. Oily water would go into tanks and gravity would separate them. The oil would then get siphoned to separate tanks and transferred to waiting oil tankers.
The true test will come in the gulf. But there are hurdles for 'A Whale' to overcome. Crews would need to discharge untreated, but less oily water back into the ocean. That would violate EPA regulations.
WAVY.com caught up with a man who traveled to Norfolk from Baton Rouge, La.. Edward Overton, a Louisiana State
University professor, said his community is desperate for this ship to get a waiver. "We need this ship," he told TMT executives. "That oil is already contaminating our shoreline."
A private maritime businessman, Chairman of Today Makes Tomorrow, decided he had to do something - now. "A large scale disaster needs a large scale solution," he told WAVY.com.
The owners of the "A Whale" said the new skimming approach has never been attempted on this scale.
"We really have to start showing people what we can do," said Bob Grantham, project coordinator for TMT Group, a Taiwan-based shipping company. "We're seriously looking at whether we can go on site and just try to do it ourselves. That's not a good solution. We need to work with everyone else."
The company is still negotiating with the Coast Guard to join the cleanup and does not have a contract with BP to perform the 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 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.
Grantham said TMT was hopeful it could secure the necessary approvals during the ship's three-day passage to the Gulf. The Liberian-flagged ship was to leave Norfolk later Friday.
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.
"I believe this spill is unprecedented and you need an unprecedented solution," said T.K. Ong, senior vice president for TMT.
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