On The Gulf, Oily Ships Cleaned One At A Time

A shrimp-trawler gets a high-powered spray wash. Debbie Elliot/NPR i i

hide captionA shrimp-trawler gets a high-powered spray wash after spending a day skimming oil in the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard has set up dozens of offshore decontamination stations like this one south of Mobile Bay.

Debbie Elliot/NPR
A shrimp-trawler gets a high-powered spray wash. Debbie Elliot/NPR

A shrimp-trawler gets a high-powered spray wash after spending a day skimming oil in the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard has set up dozens of offshore decontamination stations like this one south of Mobile Bay.

Debbie Elliot/NPR

The crude oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico isn't only a problem when it hits beaches or fouls sensitive marshland. The floating slick offshore can make a mess of the commercial ships that traverse Gulf waters, and then track that oil into shipping channels, ports and marinas.

Just south of Mobile, Ala., Resolute, a seagoing tug, is positioned near the entrance of a ship channel. The 100-foot tug would normally be docking and sailing ships in and out of Mobile harbor, but now it has been converted into a floating decontamination station. Oily ships can stop and get a wash before they come into port.

Preventing Further Contamination

"We're spraying them down to make sure they don't contaminate the uncontaminated part of Mobile Bay," says Coast Guard Marine Science Technician John Revis, the pollution inspector aboard the Resolute.

It is one of at least 37 offshore cleaning posts from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle, paid for by energy giant BP, which operated the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded April 20, killing 11 people and sending oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

"We'll get real sticky brown stuff on there that we can't even get off with a water cannon — all the way to a light sheen that we can spray off real quickly," Revis says.

If the ships can't be sprayed off and are still trailing sheen in the water, Revis sends them to decontamination stations closer to shore that have better equipment.

Mostly, Revis says, crews are seeing the heavier oil — and not just on commercial vessels like the freighters and tankers that offload at the Port of Mobile. Some of the worst-soiled boats are the ones now working for BP in the cleanup, like the Simple Man, a shrimp trawler-turned-oil skimmer. Its captain asks Resolute to inspect the vessel's hull.

"This is mostly what we've been dealing with during the day ... these shrimp boats that have been out here skimming oil," Resolute Capt. Jimmy Minhinnette says.

John Meaut aims a spray nozzle at a ship. Debbie Elliot/NPR i i

hide captionJohn Meaut aims what he calls a "big old squirt gun" from aboard a tug boat that's been converted to a floating oil decontamination station. The crew uses the boat’s fire-fighting equipment to clean oil off ships and keep them from tracking crude into ship channels, ports and marinas along the Gulf Coast.

Debbie Elliot/NPR
John Meaut aims a spray nozzle at a ship. Debbie Elliot/NPR

John Meaut aims what he calls a "big old squirt gun" from aboard a tug boat that's been converted to a floating oil decontamination station. The crew uses the boat’s fire-fighting equipment to clean oil off ships and keep them from tracking crude into ship channels, ports and marinas along the Gulf Coast.

Debbie Elliot/NPR

'A Big Old Squirt Cannon'

On the deck below the bridge, Resolute crew readies to go to work.

Seaman John Meaut takes the helm of a giant red water cannon that sucks up seawater.

"It's like squirting a big old squirt cannon," he says. "It's what we use to suppress fires and what we've been using to spray off the hulls of any vessels that have oil on them."

Minhinnette announces on the ship's intercom that they'll be spraying off the starboard side.

Meaut opens the water valve and aims the high-pressure spray low -– where Simple Man's hull meets the water. He methodically works all the way around the boat as the captain above maneuvers the tug to avoid a bladder full of oily water the shrimp boat is towing inshore for disposal.

From the bridge, Minhinnette commands: "Get that water away from that bladder!" The crew spins the water cannon to port, and the job is finished.

"All right, Simple Man," Minhinnette says over the radio, "that's going to do it." Simple Man responds: "Sure do appreciate it. Y'all have a good one."

Minhinnette, who is from Mobile, says watching what's happening in the Gulf is sad, but this is at least one thing he and his crew can do to help.

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