Image: A Whale
Judi Bottoni  /  AP
The A Whale, a newly retooled bulk oil/ore carrier, is shown in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday.
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updated 7/4/2010 7:46:16 AM ET 2010-07-04T11:46:16

The latest hopes are riding on a massive new skimmer to clean oil from near the spewing well in the Gulf of Mexico, while a local Louisiana parish's plan to block the slick has been rejected by federal officials.

A 48-hour test of the Taiwanese vessel dubbed "A Whale" began Saturday and was to continue through Sunday.

TMT Shipping created what is billed as the world's largest oil skimmer by converting an oil tanker after the April 20 explosion killed 11 workers and sent millions of gallons of crude spilling into the Gulf.

The vessel was expected to cruise a 25-square-mile test site just north of the Macondo Deepwater well site, company officials said.

The U.S. Coast Guard and BP are waiting to see if the vessel, which is 10 stories high and as long as 3½ 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 works by taking in water through 12 vents, separating the oil and pumping the cleaned seawater 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.

Story: Oil-eating Whale or ‘white elephant’?

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 ship arrived in the Gulf on Wednesday, but 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.

Exasperated governor
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."

The governor, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the relief effort, also criticized a decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject a proposal by Jefferson Parish to build a series of rock dikes to protect the ecologically important Barataria Bay.

Parish officials were using a fleet of barges — dubbed the "Cajun Navy" — as temporary barriers to block the oil, but some was still seeping in. The Corps found that the dike plan was incomplete, lacking a designated agency to remove the barriers, a restoration plan for environmental damage and data to measure any such damage.

"The Corps took weeks to review the plan only to reject it today — and this denial is another unfortunate example of the federal government's lack of urgency in this war to protect our coast," said Kyle Plotkin, Jindal's press secretary.

Back at the well site, work continued through the weekend to prepare another vessel, the Helix Producer, to hook up to the containment cap at the seafloor and start collecting up to 25,000 barrels a day. The work was delayed by severe weather from Hurricane Alex.

If workers are able to hook up the Helix Producer this week, it could double the amount of oil being collected at the well head and then burned or transferred to other tankers.

Meanwhile, work is a few days ahead of schedule on two relief wells that BP says are the best chance at stopping the leak, BP America spokesman Daren Beaudo said.

But the company is sticking with its early-to-mid-August timeframe for completing the wells because of the uncertainties of hurricane season and the precision needed as the drills get deeper into the ocean floor.

Oil buried by sand
Elsewhere on the Gulf coast, environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson visited Pensacola Beach on Saturday, her first trip to Florida since the explosion and her sixth trip to the Gulf.

Jackson watched as workers in yellow and orange vests flicked penny-sized gobs of tar into nets, sifting them to filter out the sand and smaller pieces of tar. Officials overseeing the cleanup showed her how the oil had been buried by successive waves of sand, and how more layers with tar were under the top layer of sand.

Jackson said that despite the level of contamination on the beaches, it should be up to local officials to decide whether they should be closed. Officials in Escambia County have posted oil warnings at beaches but not closed them.

"From a commonsense perspective there is nothing that I am going to be able to tell you in chemical lab that you can't learn about the safety of the water from a bathing purpose by looking at it and smelling it," she said.

Reporters pressed Jackson on whether she would wade into the water Saturday based on what she had seen.

"I would not go into the water today," she said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: A Whale of a vessel

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  1. The A Whale, billed as the world's largest oil skimming vessel, is seen anchored on the Mississippi River in Boothville, La., Wednesday, June 30. The ship is the length of 3 1/2 football fields and 10 stories high. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A Whale Technical Manager Amitabh Rastogi looks through one of 12 vents -- or "jaws" -- designed to act as intake valves. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Workers demonstrate pump controls in the A Whale's cargo control room. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The view of the deck from the A Whale's bridge. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Large ports enable the crew to circulate oily water -- or any liquid -- through various storage tanks on the A Whale. In the case of the oily water, the ship's owners hope the "decanting" process will separate much of the oil from the water. (Bob Pearson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A river pilot approaches the port side of the A Whale. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Could oil be stopped earlier than expected?

  1. Closed captioning of: Could oil be stopped earlier than expected?

    >>> day of frustration and lost time in the battle against that spreading oil in the gulf of mexico . skimmer boats were once again mostly sidelined today, even though hurricane alex is no more. the skimmers were kept in port because of weather. as millions of americans escaped to the outdoors this holiday weekend, some are finding they cannot escape the effects of the oilily scourge. tonight as oil continues gushing into the see, there was encouraging news about the operation designed to cap it. nbc's thanh truong got a bird's eye view of the operations today and joins us with the latest.

    >> reporter: lester, good evening to you. bp and the coast guard are trying to beef up the response, bringing in an extra 400 skimmer boats and a super tanker. there is very little they can do to fight the weather. from high above there is little activity. high seas today suspended all skimming and controlled burn operations the fifth straight day.

    >> the weather holds the upper hand in this response. if not the daily flow, then the weather that adds to the difficulty.

    >> reporter: at the spill site, testing is being done on a converted supertanker dubbed "the a whale." if green lighted, it could suck up to 20 million gallons of oily water a day.

    >> we are looking at any and all possible alternate technologies. we'll fly over the "a whale." it's a supertanker. it's a trial and error operation.

    >> reporter: hurricane alex forced the delay of a third containment ship at the spill scene. it is expected to come online this week which they say is desperately needed.

    >> operating at their peak rate will remove between 50,000 and 53,000 barrels a day.

    >> reporter: bob dudley says the ruptured well could be sealed by the end of this month, ahead of an original mid august estimate. they say the company is making progress drilling two relief wells, but he is sticking with the original time table.

    >> if we move that time line too far to the left, closer in, there will be an expectation that, well, you said it would be done by then.

    >> reporter: there are more weather worries ahead. coast guard officials say there is a nontropical system making its way toward the spill zone and that could threaten to delay the containment efforts for days.

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