Gulf oil cleanup stalled by hurricane

Rough seas generated by Hurricane Alex are derailing cleanup efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, pushing oil from the spill onto area beaches.
Sand blows across a tiger dam as the outer edges of the tropical storm that has become Hurricane Alex approach the Louisiana coast in Grand Isle on Tuesday. ((Patrick Semansky/Associated Press))

Rough seas generated by Hurricane Alex are stalling cleanup efforts in the Gulf of Mexico, sidelining skimmers and pushing more oil from the massive spill onto area beaches.

The outer edges of the hurricane were churning coastal waters across the oil-affected region. Waves two metres high and winds more than 40 km/h were forecast through Thursday just off shore from the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.

The untested 'A Whale.' ((Patrick Semansky/Associated Press))

Cleaning up with 'A Whale'

The government is pinning its latest cleanup hopes on a huge new piece of equipment: the world's largest oil-skimming vessel.

The Taiwanese-flagged former tanker named the "A Whale" is the length of 3½ football fields and stands 10 storeys high. It just emerged from an extensive retrofitting to prepare it specifically for the Gulf, where officials hope it will be able to suck up as much as 21 million 79.49 million litres of oil-fouled water per day.

The ship looks like a typical tanker, but it takes in contaminated water through 12 vents on either side of the bow. The oil is then supposed to be separated from the water and transferred to another vessel. The water is channeled back into the sea.

But the ship has never been tested, and many questions remain about how it will operate. For instance, the seawater retains trace amounts of oil, even after getting filtered, so the Environmental Protection Agency will have to sign off on allowing the treated water back into the Gulf

In Louisiana, the storm pushed an oil patch toward Grand Isle and uninhabited Elmer's Island, dumping tar balls as big as apples on the beach.

"The sad thing is that it's been about three weeks since we had any big oil come in here," marine science technician Michael Malone said. "With this weather, we lost all the progress we made."

The loss of skimmers, combined with gusts driving water into the coast, left beaches especially vulnerable. In Alabama, the normally white sand was streaked with long lines of oil. One swath of beach 12 metres wide was stained brown and mottled with globs of oil.

Dozens of vessels that were being used to combat the oil spill were tied to docks Tuesday as Alex, more than 800 kilometres away, approached the Texas-Mexico coast. Most days, the fleet would have been skimming oil from the Gulf and ferrying workers and supplies. But the hurricane turned many people fighting the 11-week-old spill into spectators.

Officials scrambled to reposition booms to protect the coast, and had to remove barges that had been blocking oil from reaching sensitive wetlands.

By Wednesday night, Alex had maximum sustained winds near 155 km/h. The National Hurricane Center said the Category 2 storm is the first June Atlantic hurricane since 1995. It is on track for the Texas-Mexico border region and expected to make landfall in the evening.

Skimming efforts halted

As Alex approached, skimming efforts off the coasts of Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi had mostly stopped.

At the main staging area for oil cleanup efforts around Grand Isle, stacks of booms, bottled water, ice chests and cleaning materials stood ready to load when the work restarted.

Oily waves come ashore in Orange Beach, Ala., on Wednesday. ((Dave Martin/Associated Press))

The rough seas and winds aren't all bad, though — scientists have said they could help break apart the oil and make it evaporate faster.

The wave action, combined with dispersants sprayed by the Coast Guard, has helped break a nine-by-50-kilometre oil patch into smaller patches, U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Joe Higgens said.

"It's good news because there is less on the surface," Higgens said. "It's surface oil that washes up on the beaches."

Between 268 million and 520 million litres of oil have spewed into the Gulf from the broken BP well so far, according to government and BP estimates.

Tougher legislation advanced

Congress began advancing legislation Wednesday that imposes new safeguards on offshore oil drilling in hopes of preventing a repeat of the devastating spill that has brought environmental and economic havoc to the Gulf coast.

Two Senate committees separately approved bills that would strengthen the government's regulation of offshore drilling, require oil companies to be better prepared to cope with a spill, and lift federal spill-related economic liability limits.

The bills now advance to the full Senate, where they are likely to be merged into broader legislation.