* Government has high hopes for skimmer
* Skimming capacity is 500,000 barrels per day
* Vessel is the largest ever in the Mississippi River (Recasts with fresh details, quotes)
By Matthew Bigg
BOOTHVILLE, Louisiana, July 1 (Reuters) - A supertanker converted to operate as a giant oil skimmer will be tested on Saturday to see if it is ready for use in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill cleanup.
The 1,100-foot (335 meter)-long ore and oil carrier, owned by TMT shipping of Taiwan and dubbed the “A Whale,” can collect 500,000 barrels (21 million gallons) per day of contaminated water, said Chris Coulon, a spokeswoman for the joint incident command.
Local pilots said the grey and rust-colored tanker is the largest ship ever to sail up the Mississippi River and it dwarfed all other craft on the waterway as it lay at anchor on Friday northwest of the small town of Venice. Its main funnel is painted with a large blue whale.
Once 48 hours of tests by the Coastguard are completed, TMT hopes to sign a contract with BP Plc (BP.L)(BP.N) that could boost the collection capacity of that operation significantly, Coulon and officers on the ship said.
“We already did a test but we have to see if it works to their (federal authorities’) satisfaction,” said Captain Sanio Radhakrishnan, referring to tests already conducted in Portugal, where the ship was converted.
Hurricane Alex brought a halt to oil skimming but prior to its arrival in the Gulf 500 boats were involved in the operation and at a peak 650 vessels were taking part.
In total, they have skimmed 595,000 barrels of oil and water mix from the sea in the first 68 days of the spill, according to company spokesmen.
But the tanker can skim up to 300,000 barrels in a single 8-10 hour period, said Radhakrishnan.
It was unclear how much oily water was in the Gulf and thus how much of a dent the tanker would make in the pollution.
Oil from BP’s blown-out well began spewing into the waters off Louisiana after an oil rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers.
At a White House briefing on Thursday, Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the government’s point man for the spill response, said he had “high hopes” for the vessel, dubbed a super skimmer.
Company spokesmen gave no details of the potential value of the contract, but fitting out the new $120 million tanker and bringing it to the Gulf cost $6 million and two similar vessels are being readied for cleanup work, Radhakrishnan said.
Contaminated water enters the ship through 12 long horizontal slits on the ship’s port and starboard sides and it is then decanted through a series of tanks to separate oil and water, according to third officer Neeraj Chaturvedi.
Eventually, the oil can be transferred on to a second ship while the water is tipped back into the sea.
Ideally, the tanker should complement the existing skimming fleet and it should be particularly useful in deep waters, Chaturvedi said.
“Skimming is something that is not usual for us to do. We are tanker people. But the fundamentals of taking oil from water is basic physics,” he said. (Additional reporting by Bruce Nichols and Eileen O‘Grady in Houston, editing by Todd Eastham)