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Originally published Tuesday, June 29, 2010 at 6:01 PM

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BP oil spill brings big order to Seattle boat builder

Kvichak Marine Industries in Ballard is working overtime to fill orders for shallow-water skimmer boats that are used in cleaning up the BP oil spill.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The impact of the nation's worst oil spill has stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of Puget Sound, creating a small boom for one local company.

To combat the oil that continues to gush out of the uncapped well on the Gulf floor, additional shallow-water skimmer boats are being ordered from Kvichak Marine Industries.

Two skimmers are already on their way to the Gulf. Seattle-based Kvichak has orders for 28 more boats, in a deal that may be worth about $10 million.

This is the first time the company has built boats during an oil spill. During such emergencies it usually just gets orders for more of the belts and pads its boats use to collect oil, because contractors run through their supplies quickly.

"Normally you don't do it," said Keith Whittemore, president. "[But] this damn thing keeps spewing oil."

The BP spill is unique in that it's been leaking for more than two months. The sheer scope of the cleanup effort is now beyond the capability of the 68 or so shallow-water skimmer boats that emergency-response company ES&H has working the spill, said Donald Nalty, ES&H's chief operating officer.

Around 2,000 skimmers, from 200-foot barges to the 30-foot shallow-water boats made by Kvichak, are working the spill.

The 30 skimmers from Kvichak will boost the size of ES&H's fleet by about 50 percent.

A crew of four — one operator and three technicians — operates the Kvichak skimmers in 15 feet of water or less, primarily working inland in marshes and bayous.

The skimmers average between 250 and 500 barrels of oil daily, but in optimal conditions can pick up 1,000 barrels of oil a day, said Nalty, who's from Metairie, La., just outside New Orleans.

"A thousand barrels, that's when you're in a good slug of oil," Nalty said.

Kvichak's 30-foot Rapid Response Oil Skimmer has performed well enough to be the "vessel of choice" in the Gulf cleanup, Nalty said.

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When oil first seeps out into the ocean, it's fairly clean and easy to clean up. But as it stays in the water, rolling around the waves, it picks up bits of garbage and seaweed, becoming gloppy and hard to handle and looking a lot like chocolate mousse, Whittemore said.

Skimmers use a specially designed absorbent belt on a conveyorlike structure that dips down under the bow into the water and sucks in water and oil.

Oil is picked by the belt material, which can range from coarse rubber mesh to plush-looking foam, and gets scraped off into a sump inside the boat.

The belt passes through a squeeze-roller to remove the remaining water then continues on to pick up more oil.

"They're one of the most productive skimmers we have on the spill right now," Nalty said.

The skimmer picks up at least 80 percent of the oil, he said.

The skimmers cost between $300,000 and $400,000 each, meaning the 30 boats could bring about $10 million in sales.

Mechanics, welders, fabricators, electricians and painters are working around the clock in Kvichak's shop along the Lake Washington Ship Canal to keep up with orders and to get the skimmers to the Gulf as quickly as possible.

Kvichak has 120 employees at the facility.

Gary Rood, who fabricates small parts, said he's worked 56 hours a week since orders starting coming in about a month ago. Working overtime to meet the orders hasn't been a strain, he said.

"Guys that stay want to stay," Rood said over the general clamor of the shop.

The shop normally turns out a boat a month, Whittemore said.

Founded in 1981, Kvichak builds aluminum boats for a variety of customers: patrol boats for the Coast Guard, pilot boats for the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, even hovercrafts.

But with the pressing demand, Kvichak aims to churn out three boats a week.

"It's kind of turned into a production line," said marketing manager Carol Reid.

For all the extra speed and extra time put in, there's a sense of pride that the company is working to help address what's become the country's worst environmental disaster.

"I'm glad we can help on the cleanup," Rood said. "But it's a sad way to get business."

Jason Bacaj: 206-464-3320 or jbacaj@seattletimes.com

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