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Heavy Surf, High Winds Affect Cleanup as Weather Continues to Strike Gulf

July 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: There was no holiday in the battle with that blown oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, but weather again hindered cleanup efforts, as the oil fouled the Fourth of July weekend and as tar balls washed up on beaches in Texas for the first time.

Out on the water, the problem through the weekend and again today was heavy surf and high winds. Rough conditions have kept many skimmer boats from working along the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. The weather also interfered with testing a so-called super-skimmer ship dubbed the A Whale. At 1,100 feet long, the converted tanker can handle 21 million gallons of contaminated water each day.

On shore, cleanup crews were out this weekend scooping tar balls from the sand and shoreline. In Gulfport, Mississippi, more than 1,000 workers tried to get the beach clean, then keep it that way, as the waves brought more oily globs.

THOMAS STEVENS, Gulfport, Mississippi: We will work this beach today. And we will work it right now. And 20 minutes later, we will have to work it again.

RAY SUAREZ: But, in Pensacola Beach, Florida, yesterday, there was little oil to be seen. By and large, though, crowds were much smaller than usual on many Gulf Coast beaches.

In Gulf Shores, Alabama, local merchants said they had seen their business drop by more than half.

SHAUL ZISLIN, Gulf Shores, Alabama: This is the week that pays then for October, November, December, January, and February. So, it’s not whether you are profitable this week, is, are you profitable enough to then sustain throughout the off-season?

RAY SUAREZ: BP has insisted it will take care of all those damaged. And, as of today, it had spent more than $3 billion on spill response, and it billed its drilling partners for some of the cost.

But many local leaders along the Gulf say the money is simply not coming fast enough.

TONY KENNON, mayor of Orange Beach, Alabama: We’re all frustrated. We feel helpless because we continue to hear excuses. But, you know, a company such as BP, they have got enough bean counters on staff. They should have had checks coming out six weeks ago. It doesn’t make sense to me at all.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, BP continued drilling two relief wells as the best hope for finally putting a plug in the gushing well at the bottom of the Gulf.

For a closer look at the latest efforts to skim the oil and the tanker that’s being tested, we turn to Greg McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas, Austin.

For the record, the service partners with members of the oil and gas industry.

He joins us from Houston.

Greg McCormack, what makes this A Whale different from the other skimmers that have been working the Gulf for weeks?

GREG MCCORMACK, petroleum extension service director, University of Texas at Austin: I think its huge size makes it very much different than the skimmers that are out there now. And its capacity to hold liquid is about two million barrels. So, it has huge capacity. It’s a very, very different vessel than the ones out there right now.

RAY SUAREZ: So, when you are talking about something — when you are talking about something as big as that, would it be able to handle more crude and then not have to burn it out on the Gulf?

GREG MCCORMACK: It — I think the issue that we have right now is not necessarily burning it. I think that’s always going to occur.

But the issue that this vessel is going to be able to do is — in theory anyway, is to be able to take a lot more water and oil mixture in and treat that oil and water mixture.

RAY SUAREZ: So does it bring it somewhere as oil and water or does it treat it on board in effect and discharge the water?

GREG MCCORMACK: It treats it on board. I haven’t been able to find out a lot of information on how it treats it.

I believe what it’s going to do is pump the oil water mixture that gets on board into the various tanks there. And it has probably 10 or 12 different size tanks on board that were designed to hold crude oil, and just let the oil separate from the water naturally, and then pump the water back out and retain the oil.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, they have been looking at the Gulf and stopping work for many days in the past week, since Hurricane Alex moved through. Why do choppy seas make it harder to do this work, if the oil is floating on the top?

GREG MCCORMACK: Well, what you want, to be able to skim the oil off, you want to be able to contain it. And when you have choppy waters, anything more than a couple of feet of wave action, you are not able to contain the oil. And, also, you’re not able to skim it off properly.

And so I think that’s going to be an issue, especially when we have a lot of storms coming up into the Gulf of Mexico.

RAY SUAREZ: So the oil, what, goes over the boom that’s put out there to corral it?

GREG MCCORMACK: The oil goes over the boom. It’s very difficult to corral it in — in when you have any kind of significant wave action.

RAY SUAREZ: All during this last month or so, practically since the beginning of this two-and-a-half months ago, BP has been putting dispersant into the Gulf of Mexico. When are you putting dispersant, like Corexit, on to the oil, does that make it harder to pick up?

GREG MCCORMACK: I think it does make it harder to pick up. A dispersant, its action is to allow the oil to mix with the water, so that you have a kind of solution, and so it can be dispersed, and you can have weathering action. And you can also have the bacteria act on it. So, it does definitely make it more difficult to pick up.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you mentioned at the outset that this was a very big craft, this A Whale. Does that make it harder to move around the area where this oil is coming to the surface?

GREG MCCORMACK: It makes it considerably harder. For this boat to operate, it has to operate at a speed of about eight or nine miles per hour, so the rudders can be affected. And it has a turning radius, meaning its ability to turn is about two miles.

And the other part is to go from eight or nine miles an hour to a dead stop takes about two miles. So, I’m very concerned, when you are operating close to the wellhead, close to the 15 or 20 vessels that are already existing, that I would have some concern with its ability to maneuver in tight spaces.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the video taken by helicopter in the containment area shows a lot of small boats in the area around where the rig once stood. When you are trying to turn around an 1,100-foot craft, does everybody else have to get out of the way?

GREG MCCORMACK: Everybody else would definitely have to get out of the way, because this huge vessel cannot turn very, very quickly. And I’m told there are — there are about 6,000 vessels right in that area, not in the three-mile area around the well site, but in the area where they are trying to remove the oil before it gets to the beaches.

So, I think we have, you know, great concern about that.

RAY SUAREZ: Greg McCormack joins us from Houston.

Thanks a lot for talking to us.