Oil spill feared as rig sinks
11 workers still missing from blast at drilling platform in Gulf
NEW ORLEANS – A deepwater oil platform that burned for more than a day after a massive explosion sank into the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, creating the potential for a major spill as it underscored the slim chances that the 11 workers still missing survived.
The sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, which burned violently until the gulf itself extinguished the fire, could unleash more than 300,000 of gallons of crude a day into the water. The environmental hazards would be greatest if the spill were to reach the Louisiana coast, some 50 miles away.
Crews searched by air and water for the missing workers, hoping they had managed to reach a lifeboat, but one relative said family members have been told it’s unlikely any of the missing survived Tuesday night’s blast. The Coast Guard found two lifeboats but no one was inside. More than 100 workers escaped the explosion and fire; four were critically injured.
As the rig burned, supply vessels shot water into it to try to keep it afloat and avoid an oil spill, but there were additional explosions Thursday. Officials had previously said the environmental damage appeared minimal, but new challenges have arisen now that the platform has sunk.
The well could be spilling up to 336,000 gallons of crude oil a day, Coast Guard Petty Officer Katherine McNamara said. She said she didn’t know whether the crude oil was spilling into the gulf. The rig also carried 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel, but that would likely evaporate if the fire didn’t consume it.
Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said crews saw a 1-mile-by-5-mile rainbow sheen with a dark center of what appeared to be a crude oil mix on the surface of the water. She said there wasn’t any evidence crude oil was coming out after the rig sank, but officials also aren’t sure what’s going on underwater. They have dispatched a vessel to check.
The oil will do much less damage at sea than it would if it hits the shore, said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network.
“If it gets landward, it could be a disaster in the making,” Sarthou said.
Doug Helton, incident operations coordinator for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s office of response and restoration, said the spill is not expected to come onshore in the next three to four days. “But if the winds were to change, it could come ashore more rapidly,” he said.
At the worst-case figure of 336,000 gallons a day, it would take more than a month for the amount of crude oil spilled to equal the 11 million gallons spilled from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
The well will need to be capped off underwater. Coast Guard Petty Officer Ashley Butler said crews were prepared for the platform to sink and had the equipment at the site to limit the environmental damage.
Oil giant BP, which contracted the rig, said it has mobilized four aircraft that can spread chemicals to break up the oil and 32 vessels, including a big storage barge, that can suck more than 171,000 barrels of oil a day from the surface.
Crews searching for the missing workers, meanwhile, have covered the 1,940-square-mile search area by air 12 times and by boat five times. The boats searched all night.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service, which regulates oil rigs, conducted three routine inspections of the Deepwater Horizon this year – in February, March and on April 1 – and found no violations, MMS spokeswoman Eileen Angelico said.
The rig was doing exploratory drilling about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana when the explosion and fire occurred, sending a column of boiling black smoke hundreds of feet over the gulf.
The explosion is not expected to have a major impact on the oil industry. There are 90 rigs in the offshore Gulf of Mexico either drilling wells or performing work on existing wells, according to the MMS.
The explosion came less than a month after President Barack Obama’s decision to open portions of the East Coast to oil and gas exploration, and opponents of the move have seized on the blast as a reason to reverse course.
“The bottom line is that when you drill for oil, there is always a risk that not only puts lives on the line, but a risk that puts miles of coastline and the economy on the line as well,” Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, both New Jersey Democrats, said in a statement.
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