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Crews test giant oil skimmer ship in the Gulf

NEW ORLEANS - Gulf of Mexico cleanup crews working to block millions of gallons of oil from reaching land may soon have a giant on their side, if a weekend test of a new skimmer goes well.

The Taiwanese vessel dubbed "A Whale," which its owners say is the largest oil skimmer in the world, began showing its capabilities yesterday just north of the Macondo Deepwater well. An April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig there killed 11 workers and began what is now the Gulf's largest oil spill.

The vessel will cruise a 25-square-mile test site through today, according to TMT Shipping, the company that created Whale by retrofitting an oil tanker after the explosion sent millions of gallons of crude spilling into the Gulf.

The U.S. Coast Guard and BP are waiting to see whether the vessel, 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. The ship takes in contaminated seawater through 12 vents, separates the oil out and pumps the cleaned water back into the Gulf.

"In many ways, the ship collects water like an actual whale and pumps internally like a human heart," TMT spokesman Bob Grantham said in an e-mail.

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 ship arrived in the Gulf on Wednesday, but officials have wanted to test its capability and have the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sign off on the water it will pump back into the Gulf. The ship cleans most of the oil from seawater, but trace amounts of crude remain.

A smaller flotilla of oil skimmers was back at work along the Gulf Coast yesterday, after being forced to stand down for several days because of nasty weather from distant Hurricane Alex.

Also Saturday, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson visited Pensacola Beach, Fla. She said that despite the level of contamination on the beaches, it should be up to local officials to decide whether to close them.

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