Oil skimmer testing halted by bad weather in Gulf of Mexico

Oil skimmer testing in the Gulf of Mexico for the super tanker ship has been hampered by recent bad weather.

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    TMT Shipping Offshore's converted super tanker, "A Whale," and dubbed a "super oil skimmer" is pictured 14 miles northwest of the BP oil spill site as Coast Guard officials conduct tests to measure the vessels effectiveness in capturing oil and separating it from sea water in the Gulf of Mexico July 4.
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Summer storms are pushing oil from a BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico deeper into Louisiana's wetlands and temporarily slowing efforts to contain damage.

The storms are also responsible for washing oil into Lake Pontchartrain, which borders New Orleans, further polluting Mississippi's beaches and halting tests on a supertanker adapted to skim large quantities of oil from the surface.

Just the outer fringes of Hurricane Alex passed over the Louisiana coast last week but it was enough to create unusually high water levels in the maze of islands and waterways that make up Louisiana's wetlands.

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Since then, no systematic estimate of damage has been conducted but at Bay Jimmy, which sits about 10 miles inland from the Gulf's open water, oil has soaked deeper into the roots of the salt grass and pushed about 1 mile farther into the bayous, witnesses said.

"This is sticky, sticky, sticky," said Emily Guidry Schatzel of the National Wildlife Federation, scooping oil from under the surface of the water with a gloved hand.

"As the tide (water level) gets higher it is pushing more oil back up into the marsh and this means more marshes will die," she said. The oil is also fouling the habitat of a myriad of small creatures that shelter in the islands of salt grass.

Alex was the first hurricane of what experts predict will be a busy season for tropical storms. Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf coast and inundated New Orleans in 2005 and many coastal residents fear another big storm could exacerbate oil spill damage significantly.

Some scientists argue, however, that the effects of such a storm are less clear and say it could serve to 'weather' the oil and decrease its concentration in the water, thus rendering it less toxic.

TESTS HALTED ON 'SUPER SKIMMER'

Rough seas and high winds also continue to hamper oil skimming operations off the Gulf Coast, Coast Guard spokesman Commander Charles Diorio said on Tuesday.

In one example, a few boats were repairing lines of absorbent cotton boom displaced by the storm but dozens of other boats were idle at Myrtle Grove Marina, southeast of New Orleans.

A series of squalls passing through on Tuesday and forecast to continue for next few days rendered sustained clean-up work impossible.

Offshore skimming crews were unable to collect any oil-fouled water on Monday off the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle, Diorio said on a conference call from a regional command center in Mobile, Alabama.

At the same time, near-shore and inland skimming crews had "collected a grand total of three barrels of oily water," said Diorio.

High seas out near the site of the blown deepwater well halted tests of the supertanker, named "A Whale," and forced the crew to instead adapt a system designed to allow oily water into the ship's storage tanks where it can be decanted.

Coast Guard officials had left the supertanker but testing could resume later in the week.

"The long term results of this are that we are learning quite a bit about when this technology should be deployed," said Frank Maisano, spokesman for TMT Shipping Offshore, which owns the ship and hopes to sign a skimming contract with BP.

"One of the things that we are seeing is that this technology has to be applied much earlier in the process when the oil is thickest and there are the least amount of dispersants," he said.

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