Red tape keeps prized oil-fighting skimmers from Gulf, coastline
Published: Monday, June 28, 2010, 10:29 PM Updated: Tuesday, June 29, 2010, 7:28 AM
Just weeks after the oil spill crisis began to unfold in the Gulf of Mexico, the French foreign minister volunteered a fleet of oil skimming boats from a French company, Ecoceane. A month later, in early June, Ecoceane Chief Executive Eric Vial met with BP and Coast Guard officials to present the idea.
Skimmers and prized because they are the primary means for attacking oil head-on and collecting it before it hits land.
But after that meeting, weeks went by with little contact as oil continued gushing into the Gulf. A frustrated Vial was able to get around the bureacracy last week only when his company sold nine of the oil collection boats to a private contractor in Florida, who could then put the boats to work.
Oil giant Shell was in negotiations to let BP use the Nanuq, a 300-foot oil recovery boat sitting idle in Seward, Alaska. But in recent weeks, BP declined to bring it to the Gulf.
"Nothing would prevent it from working right now in the Gulf of Mexico," said Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell Alaska. "It remains available in the event that BP reconsiders."
Everyone wants skimmers
As oil oozes inland, tainting marshes and fouling beaches, local response officials from Florida to Grand Isle for weeks have been begging for the oil-fighting tool that everyone wants but no one can get enough of: skimmers. They're the primary means for attacking oil head-on and collecting it before it hits land, yet local government agencies complain that the number of specialized skimming vessels out on the water is woefully lacking.
"We want all the skimming vessels in the world deployed," said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. "This is an oil spill bigger than anything we've ever seen. It's a national disaster. We're at war. If you were at war and in charge, would you deploy everything you had to win the war?"
Some skimming systems can be outfitted onto fishing or offshore supply boats. The basic idea is to separate oil from water and collect it on board for disposal.
There are a wide variety of skimming systems: Some boats are specially designed to suck oil or lap it up from the surface using brushes or belts; other skimming systems can be outfitted onto fishing or offshore supply boats. The basic idea is to separate oil from water and collect it on board for disposal. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander for the oil spill, acknowledged recently that "Skimmers are our critical mass right now. We need to put those wherever we can get them. And we want to get them from wherever they are available."
'Anemic' response criticized
But federal response officials have been pressed for more than a week to streamline U.S. maritime restrictions that would allow more foreign skimming vessels to be put to work on the spill. And the Coast Guard and BP have been taken to task for not bringing more available U.S. skimmers to the Gulf spill.
According to the latest numbers from BP, 433 vessels are collecting oil in the Gulf, but less than a third of those are specialized boats designed specifically for oil skimming.
On the Senate floor last week, Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., pointed to a Coast Guard map detailing more than 850 skimmers available in the southeastern United States -- and more than 1,600 available in the continental United States.
"We are literally talking about more than a thousand skimmers that are available, but we only have 400 - if this number is correct -- at work," LeMieux said. "It is hard to believe that the response is this anemic; it is hard to believe that there is this lack of urgency or sense of purpose in getting this done."[snip]
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