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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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. The Coast Guard has set up dozens of offshore cleaning stations so ocean-going vessels don't track oil into shipping channels, ports and marinas.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

Unidentified Man #1: You're all on the buoys.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: I'm aboard the seagoing tug the Resolute. It's been converted into a floating decontamination station. Ships that travel through the Gulf of Mexico and become oiled have to stop at this boat and get the oil cleaned from their hulls before they're able to come into port.

Mr. JOHN REVIS (Marine Science Technician, U.S. Coast Guard): We're spraying them down to make sure they're not contaminating the uncontaminated area of Mobile Bay.

ELLIOTT: Coast Guard marine science technician John Revis is the pollution inspector aboard the Resolute, positioned near the entrance to the Mobile ship channel.

The 100-foot tug would normally be docking and sailing ships in and out of Mobile Harbor, but now it's one of at least 37 offshore cleaning stations operating from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle and paid for by BP. Revis says they're seeing all kinds of oil sticking to ships.

Mr. REVIS: 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 real light sheen that we can spray off real quickly.

ELLIOTT: 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, they 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.

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible) Resolute.

Mr. JIMMY MINHINNETTE (Captain, Resolute): Resolute's on 1-1.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, this is the Simple Man inbound here. (Unintelligible) need you to inspect my hull when you pass. I see you coming right there.

ELLIOTT: Resolute Captain Jimmy Minhinnette wants the Simple Man, a shrimp trawler, to come a little closer.

Mr. MINHINNETTE: Yeah, if you don't mind, just start easing towards me. Just get a little bit better water for me, please, sir. This is mostly what we've been dealing with during the day, are these shrimp boats coming in that have been out here skimming oil.

ELLIOTT: On the deck below the bridge, the Resolute crew readies to go to work. Able-bodied seaman John Meaut takes the helm of a giant red water cannon that sucks up seawater.

Mr. JOHN MEAUT (Seaman): It's like shooting a big old squirt cannon. 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.

ELLIOTT: Meaut aims the high-pressure spray low 2 where the 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.

Mr. MINHINNETTE: All right, Simple Man. That's going to do it, Cap.

Unidentified Man #2: All right. Appreciate it. Y'all have a good one.

Mr. MINHINNETTE: Get that water away from that bladder.

ELLIOTT: Captain Minhinnette, a Mobile native, says watching what's happening in the Gulf is sad, but that this is at least one thing he and his local crew can do to help.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.

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