"Can't they vacuum up that oil?"- UPDATED

Vasco da Gama

That question is a variation of one I have heard (or read) over the past 40-some days, as the crude continues to wreck havoc on the Gulf: “Is it possible to vacuum up and recover that oil from the surface of the water?”

I am not mechanical and had not thought it a serious question. But take a look at this Modern Marvels Video which looks at hopper suction dredges. Yes, they’re meant to dredge up sand from the ocean floor, but couldn’t they be used to suction oil off of the water and contain it?

I don’t know how true this is–it’s not in the mainstream press, but these days that doesn’t mean it’s not credible–and AOL News picked it up. Is such a thing as this truly possible?

And if it is, why haven’t we done this from the very start?

“No one’s listening,” says Nick Pozzi, who was an engineer with Saudi Aramco in the Middle East when he says an accident there in 1993 generated a spill far larger than anything the United States has ever seen.

According to Pozzi, that mishap, kept under wraps for close to two decades and first reported by Esquire, dumped nearly 800 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf, which would make it more than 70 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill.

But remarkably, by employing a fleet of empty supertankers to suck crude off the water’s surface, Pozzi’s team was not only able to clean up the spill, but also salvage 85 percent of the oil, he says.

“We took [the oil] out of the water so it would save the environment off the Arabian Gulf, and then we put it into tanks until we could figure out how to clean it,” he told AOL News.

Quick calls to my engineer friends and family revealed that, theoretically, this should be possible but whether appropriate equipment is available or not is an issue. It seems dredging arms are not like snap-on tools, easily refitted with readily-available watervacs, or something. Who knew?

From the article:

Pozzi suggests that the U.S. government tell the Saudis: ” ‘Hey, we helped you out, can you help us out? Lend us some supertankers.’ For a little payback for helping them out during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.”

Moreover, he says, “there are many, many, many other countries that have oil tankers” that, for a price, could be deployed off Louisiana.

Stephen Reilly, CEO of Slickbar, a leading oil spill equipment and vessels manufacturer, says that while he’s unfamiliar with supertankers being used in this way, Pozzi’s proposal could well work.

“Any containment area or barge or tanker can be used for reception, and they certainly have the pumping system on board,” Reilly says. “So in terms of using assets like that to pump stuff into tanks, by all means.”

Too simplistic? I admit, it sounds a bit too pie-in-the-sky-just-ask-the-Sauds-for-help idealistic, to me.

Is this something that is possible? I have no idea, but let’s find out! Seems like something the government ought to already be aware of. And if they did know of it, I have to assume they’d already be using all of the smart diplomacy and good-will points they have to pursue such a fix.

UPDATE: Reader Sarah writes:

I lived in Louisiana for about 15 years off and on. Including about 7 years working as a CPA in the oil patch and as the controller for a commercial diving company. I loved the place. And, I know how difficult it will be to get oil out of the marshes and swamps (whats the diff? Marshes don’t have trees.) once it gets in there.

I couldn’t understand why they didn’t burn it. Its been 23 years since I was working down there; but, that was a common way to deal with it back then. Louisiana sweet floats really well and doesn’t have to be supplemented to burn, so why not? Well, the first problem was not enough burn boom and then I understand the EPA nixed it.

Somebody needs to have a sharp case of reality here.

I’m guessing that a spill of this size, and the visuals of black smoke pouring into the sky made the burn-off idea unpalatable both politically and environmentally.

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