Bad weather halts oil rig blast clean-up

Choppy seas, strong winds and rain today halted the clean-up of an oil spill around a massive drilling rig which exploded and sank off the US.

Choppy seas, strong winds and rain today halted the clean-up of an oil spill around a massive drilling rig which exploded and sank off the US.

Eleven workers are still missing, presumed dead, from the Deepwater Horizon rig which sank on Thursday about 50 miles (80km) from the coast of Louisiana.

The bad weather rolled in yesterday, bringing with it strong wind, clouds and rain which interrupted efforts to contain the oil spill.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Erik Swanson said the clean-up operation would resume once the weather cleared.

The cause of Tuesday's massive blast on the rig is unknown. Yesterday, Coast Guard officials suspended the three-day search for the missing workers.

An undetermined amount of oil has spilled from the rig, although Mr Swanson said today that remotely operated vehicles had not yet detected any leaking oil from the well or rig. However, crews are closely monitoring the rig and well for any more crude that might spill out.

An oil sheen appeared to cover an area about two miles (3.2km) wide and eight miles (13km) long yesterday.

BP, which is taking the lead in the clean-up, said it has activated an extensive oil spill response, including the remotely operated vehicles to assess the well and 32 vessels to mop up the spill. The Marine Spill Response Corp, an energy industry clean-up consortium, also brought in equipment.

About half a dozen boats were using booms to trap the thin sheen, which extended about seven miles (11km) north of the rig site. There was no sign yet of wildlife being affected.

Opponents of US President Barack Obama's plan for more offshore drilling said the explosion should be taken as a warning.

"I would hope it would serve as another wake-up call on this issue that there is no such thing as safe oil drilling," said Sara Wan, a member of the California Coastal Commission, a state regulatory agency.

"Once that oil starts leaking in the ocean, that damage is irreversible. You just look at what happened with Exxon-Valdez - they're still feeling the effects of it."

Mr Obama showed no sign of budging yesterday. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said the President still believes increasing domestic oil production can be done safely, securely and without harming the environment.

Meanwhile, the search for the missing workers was called off because officials believe the men never made it off the platform which erupted into a giant fireball. The Coast Guard stopped the search after the families of the missing workers gave their approval.

"I'm a father and husband, and I have done this a few times before. It's never easy. Your heart goes out to these people," said Coast Guard Captain Peter Troedsson, who talked to the families.

The Coast Guard said it would resume the search if any ships in the area saw anything.

The 11 missing workers came from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Neither the Coast Guard nor their employers have released their names, although several of their families have come forward.

Scott Bickford, a lawyer for the family of missing worker Shane Roshto, said Mr Roshto's wife, Natalie, had been staying with other workers' relatives at a hotel in suburban New Orleans but returned home to Liberty, Mississippi, yesterday.

"Natalie has pretty much accepted the fact that her husband is not coming back," Mr Bickford said.

The other 115 crew members made it off the platform. Several were hurt but only two remained in hospital yesterday. The most seriously injured worker was expected to be released within about 10 days.

Federal officials had already been working on new rules for offshore drilling before Tuesday's blast.

The US Minerals and Management Service documented more than 1,400 offshore oil drilling accidents between 2001 and 2007. It is developing regulations aimed at preventing human error, which it identified as a factor in many of those cases.

The Deepwater Horizon was the site of a 2005 fire found to have been caused by human error. An MMS investigation determined that a crane operator on the rig had become distracted while refuelling the crane, allowing diesel fuel to overflow. Records show the fire was quickly contained, but caused $60,000 (€44,828) damage to the crane.

An MMS review published last year found 41 deaths and 302 injuries out of 1,443 oil-rig accidents from 2001 to 2007. An analysis of the accidents found a lack of communication between the operator and contractors, a lack of written procedures, a failure to enforce existing procedures and other problems.

"It appears that equipment failure is rarely the primary cause of the incident or accident," the report said.

As a result of the findings, the MMS is developing new rules which would require rig operators to develop programmes focused on preventing human error, an area which has received relatively little attention in the past.

The agency, which has yet to implement the new rules and is currently reviewing public comment on the proposal, also suggested audits once every three years on programmes to prevent human error.

Oil giant BP, which leased the Deepwater Horizon, opposes what it says are "extensive prescriptive regulations".

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