NEW ORLEANS – With hurricane-whipped waves pushing more oil onto the Gulf of Mexico's once-white beaches, the government pinned its latest cleanup hopes Wednesday 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 3 1/2 football fields and stands 10 stories 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 gallons of oil-fouled water per day.
"It is absolutely gigantic. It's unbelievable," said Louisiana State University environmental sciences professor Ed Overton, who saw the ship last week in Norfolk, Va.
As the monstrous vessel made its way toward the Gulf Coast, large waves churned up by distant Hurricane Alex left Alabama beaches splattered with oil and tar balls the size of apples. The rough seas forced most smaller skimming boats into port for a second consecutive day, putting many cleanup crews at a standstill.
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.
"This is a no-brainer," Overton said. "You're bringing in really dirty, oily water and you're putting back much cleaner water."
The vessel, owned by the Taiwanese shipping firm TMT Group, was completed as a tanker earlier this year in South Korea. But after the Gulf spill, the company's CEO and founder, Nobu Su, ordered it changed into a giant skimmer. The vessel was sent to Portugal for the refit and embarked for the Gulf as soon as it was finished.
The ship arrived Wednesday in Louisiana coastal waters, where TMT officials planned to meet with the Coast Guard to plan a tryout of the ship.
The Coast Guard will have the final say in whether the vessel can operate in the Gulf. TMT will have to come to separate terms with BP, which is paying for the cleanup.
"I don't know whether it's going to work or not, but it certainly needs to be given the opportunity," Overton said.
Meanwhile along parts of the Gulf, red flags snapped in strong gusts, warning people to stay out of the water, and long stretches of beach were stained brown from tar balls and crude oil that had been pushed as far as 60 yards from the water.
Oil deposits appeared worse than in past days, and local officials feared the temporary halt to skimming operations near the coast would only make matters worse ahead of the July 4 holiday weekend.
"I'm real worried about what is going to happen with those boats not running. It can't help," said Tony Kennon, mayor of Orange Beach, Ala.
As of Wednesday, between 71.2 million and 139 million gallons of oil have gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from the leak caused by the April 20 explosion aboard the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon. The blast killed 11 oil workers on the platform, which was owned by Transocean Ltd. and leased by BP PLC.
Although skimming operations and the laying of oil-corralling booms were halted across the Gulf, vessels that collect and burn oil and gas at the site of the explosion were still operating. Efforts to drill relief wells that experts hope will stop the leak also continued unabated.
The weather delayed efforts to bring a third vessel, the Helix Producer, out to the broken well head. The ship can capture up to 25,000 barrels of oil a day and connects to the leak through a flexible hose that allows it to leave the site quickly in case of a hurricane.
Officials had hoped the vessel would be connected Wednesday, but in a news briefing Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the choppy conditions were too perilous for now. The ship was expected to get to work next week.
In Florida, lumps of tar the size of dinner plates filled a large swath of beach east of Pensacola after rough waves tossed the mess onto shore.
"The weather has hampered the cleanup. Our night crews went out there to try and verify exactly how much it was, and it's about half a mile," said Santa Rosa County spokeswoman Joy Tsubooka.
Streaks of the rust-red oil could be seen in the waves off Pensacola Beach as cleanup crews worked in the rough weather to prepare the beach for the holiday weekend.
In Louisiana, heavy rains pounded the Grand Isle region, causing flash flooding in low-lying areas. Long bolts of lightning streaked the dark skies, keeping oil-cleanup operations locked down. A pounding surf had moved some of the boom that lines the beach.
Coast Guard Cmdr. Joe Higgens said the booms protecting the region would probably take a beating because of heavy seas and storm surge, and workers will start putting the barriers back in place once the weather clears.
Richard Ambrose, director of the environmental science and engineering program at UCLA, said the decision to halt cleanup and containment efforts presents two distinct threats: That much more oil will wash up on beaches, and that the storm will be strong enough to push oil farther inland into vulnerable wetlands.
"Stormy weather can bring oil places it wouldn't have gone otherwise," Ambrose said.
On Wednesday evening, Alex strengthened into a Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds of 100 mph. The National Weather Service predicted the storm would make landfall on the Mexican Gulf Coast and south Texas later Wednesday night.