Day 69: Shocking Government Incompetence Holds Back Biggest Skimmer from Helping in the Gulf

June 27, 2010

Sixty-nine days into the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill, government inertia and incompetence continue to hamper the cleanup effort. The latest example: the world’s biggest oil skimmer, the A Whale.

The A-Whale, a Taiwanese-owned, Liberian-flagged ship was originally built as a super tanker for transporting oil. It displaces more water than an aircraft carrier. The six-month-old vessel was refitted in the wake of the oil spill with intake vents to work as an oil skimmer that takes in contaminated water, filters out the oil and releases the cleaned water back into the sea.

It stopped in Norfolk Virginia Friday and is now in route to the Gulf. But several hurdles to its use remain. TMT, the company that owns the skimmer, still needs an agreement with BP on payment for its work. Given the pressure BP is under to speed up the cleanup, this is unlikely to be an issue. Government incompetence is the real obstacle to getting the A Whale to work in the Gulf:

To join the fight, the ship also might require separate waivers from the Coast Guard and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The A Whale — pronounced along the lines of “A Team” because there is a “B Whale” coming — is designed to work 20 to 50 miles offshore where smaller skimmers have trouble navigating. The ship would take in oily water and transfer it into specialized storage tanks on the flanks of the vessel. From there, the oil-fouled seawater would be pumped into internal tanks where the oil would separate naturally from the water.

After the separation process, the oil would be transferred to other tankers or shore-based facilities while the remaining water would be pumped back into the gulf.

Because the process wouldn’t remove all traces of oil from the seawater, TMT will likely have to gain a special permit from the EPA, said Scott H. Segal of the Washington lobbying firm, Bracewell & Giuliani, which TMT has retained to help negotiate with federal regulators.

“The simple answer is, we don’t know what the discharge will look like until we can take A Whale out there and test it,” Segal said. TMT will work with regulators to determine an appropriate level of oil that can be contained in the ship’s discharge.

TMT also is working with the Coast Guard to gain approval to operate in the gulf, which may require a waiver from a 90-year-old maritime act that restricts foreign-flagged vessels from operating in U.S. waters, said Bob Grantham, a TMT project officer.

Connaughton, the former federal Maritime Administrator, said he doesn’t believe the A Whale would require a waiver from the Jones Act, a federal law signed in 1920 that sought to protect U.S. maritime interests.

Coast Guard inspectors toured the ship for about four hours on Thursday to determine the ship’s efficacy and whether it was fit to be deployed, said Capt. Matthew Sisson, commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s Research and Development arm in New London, Conn.

“We take all offers of alternative technology very seriously,” Sisson said. The ship, he said, is “an impressive engineering feat.”

He would not offer a timetable for Coast Guard approval of the vessel, but said he will try to “turn around a report … as soon as humanely possible.”

As soon as humanely possible? The biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history is unfolding and some Coast Guard bureaucrats want to take their time deciding whether to accept help?

And what does it mean that regulators will “determine an appropriate level of oil that can be contained in the ship’s discharge”? Unless the EPA is aware of an evil plot to add more oil to the water, the discharged water will at worst be no better than the water taken in. Any reduction in oil is a benefit. So why not just let the A Whale start working in the Gulf and measure the benefit in the field?

The federal government should encourage companies like TMT who saw an opportunity and quickly refitted the A Whale to meet the sudden need for oil skimmers. Normal regulations should be waived to speed up the cleanup and eliminate unnecessary costs. We should encourage human ingenuity to alleviate the damage.

Bureaucratic government thinking is becoming the major obstacle to this cleanup leading to ever more bizarre actions. It is better for pelicans to die from oil exposure than that humans creating sand barriers might disturb their habitat.

If we had a competent president, he could announce suspension of business as usual and require all government agencies to help or get out of the way. Unfortunately, President Obama’s actions or lack of actions show his utter incompetence in fulfilling the duties of his office.

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