Giant Oil Skimmer Being Tested in Gulf of Mexico

A converted tanker billed as the world's largest oil skimmer has arrived on scene in the Gulf of Mexico and was being tested Saturday on the BP spill, where officials hope it will scrub millions of gallons of oil-tainted seawater.

Frank Maisano, spokesman for the Taiwanese shipping firm that owns the vessel, dubbed "A Whale," confirmed Saturday that tests have begun.

"Today, the A Whale got underway on initial testing of its effectiveness as the world's largest skimmer," Bob Grantham, TMT Shipping Offshore spokesman, said on Saturday.

"The skimmer concept of taking in oily water through a series of vents, or jaws, on the side of the ship and then decanting the intake harnesses familiar engineering concepts well-understood in the scientific community."

"In many ways, the ship collects water like an actual whale and pumps internally like a human heart."

The ship works by taking in water through 12 vents, separating the oil and pumping the cleaned seawater back into the Gulf.

The U.S. Coast Guard says testing will take 48 hours, and the skimmer is six miles north of the Deepwater Horizon blowout site. It has been assigned a five-by-five-mile square area just to the north of the site, according to Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft.

A Whale is being tested close to the wellhead because officials believe it will be most effective where the oil is thickest rather than closer to shore.

The Coast Guard, along with BP, are waiting to see if the vessel, which is 10 stories high and as long as 3 1/2 football fields, can live up to its makers' promise of being able to process up to 21 million gallons of oil-fouled water a day.

There are numerous technical experts, including representatives of the Coast Guard's respected Research and Development Center, based in New London, Conn., aboard the skimmer.

Officials want to verify the ship can make good on its promise of sucking up as much as 21 million gallons of oil-fouled water per day.

Tests will continue through daylight hours on Saturday and resume Sunday. Initial results are expected to be available on Monday.

The shipping firm TMT Group retrofitted the oil tanker after the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon that killed 11 workers and began what is now the largest oil spill in the Gulf's history.

Though the skimmer arrived on Wednesday, officials have wanted to test its capability as well as have the federal Environmental Protection Agency sign off on the water it will pump back into the gulf. Although the ship cleans most of the oil from seawater, trace amounts of crude remain.

The wait has frustrated some local officials, who say the mammoth skimmer would be a game-changer in preventing drifting streams of oil from washing ashore on vulnerable coastlines.

During a Thursday tour of the inlet to Barataria Bay, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said it was exasperating to have A Whale anchored offshore instead of being put to immediate use.

"They've used the war rhetoric," Jindal said aboard a Louisiana state wildlife boat floating in oil-slicked waters near Grand Isle. "If this is really a war, they need to be using every resource that makes sense to fight this oil before it comes to our coast."

A smaller flotilla of oil skimmers was back at work along the Gulf coast Saturday, after being forced to stand down for several days because of nasty weather whipped up by distant Hurricane Alex.

The bad weather also delayed the hookup of a vessel called the Helix Producer at the wellhead. The ship can collect up to 25,000 barrels of oil a day, which would virtually double the amount now being captured or burned at the site by two other vessels.

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the Obama administration's point person in the oil spill response, said Friday crews will resume getting the Helix Producer in place over the weekend, with production starting around July 7.

Meantime, a federal judge in New Orleans is trying to streamline the legal process for more than 30 lawsuits arising from the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.

An order filed this week from U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier temporarily consolidates the lawsuits for pretrial purposes.

The suits represent only a fraction of the more than 200 lawsuits filed in courts in Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere since the rig BP was operating exploded on April 20 and sank.

Barbier said suits pending in his section will be administratively consolidated pending a ruling by a multidistrict panel on how to handle all of the suits filed nationally. That panel meets July 29.

Barbier has appointed lawyers to act as interim liaisons between the parties and the court on behalf of all the plaintiffs and defendants in cases in his section.

Some attorneys want Barbier to oversee all cases filed nationally. British oil giant BP PLC wants U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes of Houston to hear all the cases.

BP has taken the brunt of criticism about the oil spill because it was leasing and operating the Deepwater Horizon. It also is a majority owner of the undersea well that is spewing oil into the Gulf.

Swiss-based Transocean Ltd. owned a majority interest in the rig. Anadarko Petroleum, based in The Woodlands, Texas, has a 25 percent non-operating interest in the well.

Suits filed in various states have been brought by, among others, fishermen who have lost their livelihoods, investors who are seeing their nest eggs decimated by the plunge in BP's stock price, and underwriters of insurance policies who are trying to block BP from collecting.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.