Oil leaking at blast site
New Orleans - The Coast Guard discovered on Saturday that oil is leaking from the damaged well that fed a massive rig that exploded this week off Louisiana's coast, while bad weather halted efforts to clean up the mess that threatens the area's fragile marine ecosystem.
For days, the Coast Guard has said no oil appeared to be escaping from the well head on the ocean floor. Rear Admiral Mary Landry said the leak was a new discovery but could have begun when the rig sank on Thursday, two days after the initial explosion.
"We thought what we were dealing with as of yesterday was a surface residual (oil) from the mobile offshore drilling unit," Landry said. "In addition to that is oil emanating from the well. It is a big change from yesterday ... This is a very serious spill, absolutely."
Coast Guard and company officials estimate that as much as 1 000 barrels - or 160 000 litres) - of oil is leaking each day after studying information from remotely operated vehicles and the size of the oil slick surrounding the blast site. The rainbow-coloured sheen of oil stretched 30x30km on Saturday - about 25 times larger than it appeared to be a day earlier, Landry said.
By comparison, Exxon Valdez spilled 40 million litres in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989 - the worst oil spill in US history.
BP PLC, which leased the rig and is taking the lead in the cleanup, and the government have been using the remotely operated vehicles to try to stop the leak by closing valves on the well deep underwater. If that doesn't work, the company could drill what's called an intervention well to control the oil flow. But the intervention drilling could take months.
"Over the next several days, we should determine which method is the best one to follow," said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production. "A huge number of engineers from ourselves, working with (the government) and across the industry are putting together the best technology and know-how to solve this problem."
Complicating efforts to stop the leak is well head's depth at 1500m underwater, said Lars Herbst, the regional director for the Minerals Management Service. Leaks have been fixed at similar depths before, but the process is difficult, he said.
The bad weather rolled in on Friday, bringing with it strong wind, clouds and rain that interrupted efforts to contain the oil spill. Coast Guard Petty Officer John Edwards said he was uncertain when weather conditions would improve enough for the cleanup to resume. So far, crews have retrieved about 1 052 barrels of oily water, he said.
The sunken rig may have as much as 2.6 million litres of diesel on board, and an undetermined amount of oil has spilled from the rig itself. Suttles said the rig was "intact and secure" on the seabed about 400m from the well site.
BP said it has activated an extensive oil spill response, including the remotely operated vehicles, 700 workers, four airplanes and 32 vessels to mop up the spill. The Marine Spill Response Corp, an energy industry clean-up consortium, also brought equipment.
New safety rules
Eleven oil workers are still missing, the other 115 crew members made it off the platform; several were hurt but only one remained hospitalised. The most seriously injured worker was expected to be released within about 10 days.
Federal officials had already been working on new safety rules for offshore drilling before Tuesday's blast.
The US Minerals and Management Service is developing regulations aimed at preventing human error, which it identified as a factor in many of the more than 1 400 offshore oil drilling accidents between 2001 and 2007. An MMS review published last year found 41 deaths and 302 injuries during that period.
The cause of Tuesday's blast hasn't been determined.