Drilling rig spill contained for now
Search given up for 11 workers; oil slick watched
NEW ORLEANS — Three days after an explosion on an oil rig off the southeast coast of Louisiana, an environmental disaster has been at least temporarily forestalled, but the search for 11 missing workers has ended, the Coast Guard said late yesterday.
Explosions on Tuesday night and Thursday sank the giant rig that had been atop a well reaching thousands of feet underwater. The first blast left 11 workers unaccounted for and a sheen of oil spread across marine-rich waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
Now it appears clear that those workers will not be found alive.
“We have just made a very difficult decision,’’ Rear Admiral Mary E. Landry, commander of the Eighth Coast Guard District, said at a news conference. “After a three-day search covering 5,300 miles, we have reached a point where reasonable expectations of survival have passed.’’
Landry also said the condition of four workers critically injured in the explosion had improved. Two had been released from the hospital, she said, and another was to be released soon.
The fourth worker will remain in the hospital for seven to 10 days. Officials have not released the names of any workers on the rig at the time of the explosion.
Earlier in the day, the Coast Guard conveyed optimism about the situation in the gulf, however. Remote-controlled underwater surveillance units indicated that there was no crude pouring out of the well beneath the ocean’s surface.
The possibility of such leaks and their potentially devastating impact on local fisheries had been a major concern since the first explosion, only 50 miles from the Louisiana coast.
Landry said the heavy piece of emergency equipment at the well head known as a blowout preventer appeared to have done its job and was sealing off a flow of oil from below. “It is not a guarantee,’’ she said, “but right now we continue to see no oil emanating from the well.’’
Another mystery that the Coast Guard said remained unsolved was the whereabouts of some 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel that had been stored inside the pontoons of the rig before the accident. Fuel may have been released in the blast that sank the rig Thursday and was consumed in the fire, but it is also possible that it remains intact beneath the surface and could spill out.
Still, with the catastrophe beneath the waves contained for now, government and oil industry forces were able to concentrate their efforts on cleaning up the estimated 180,000 barrels of oil and water mix that resulted from the explosion.
At midafternoon, officials described a slick that spread roughly 16 square miles in the Gulf and was sheen-thin in most areas but contained some deeper pockets of crude.
Despite the ugliness of darkened waters, the ecological danger the slick posed to the mainland seemed to recede yesterday. While the spill was serious, it remained 45 miles offshore, slowly edging northeast. Projections indicated that even in five days it would still be 40 miles offshore.