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US evacuates oil rig after Gulf of Mexico leak

US authorities have evacuated an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico near where another oil rig sank after an explosion last week.

Workers on the Ocean Endeavour were evacuated as an oil slick from the wrecked platform was coming dangerously close, officials say.

The Minerals Management Service said it was being cautious after the explosion, from which 11 people are still missing.

The sunken rig’s ruptured pipeline is leaking oil despite efforts to seal it.

Robotic submersibles are being used to try to stop oil leaking from the damaged well, the Deepwater Horizon, which is almost a mile (1.5km) below the surface.

British oil company BP, which leased the rig, said the attempt would take 24 to 36 hours.

Meanwhile, engineers are creating a giant underwater dome to trap the escaping oil so that it can be funnelled into tanks on the surface.

Some 1,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) of oil a day have been gushing from the well since the drilling rig exploded and burned for 36 hours before it sank off the Louisiana coast last Thursday.

Coastguard Rear Adm Mary Landry: “We have no shoreline impact at this time”

Conservation experts say the oil has the potential to damage beaches, barrier islands, wetlands and wildlife reserves along hundreds of miles of coastline in four US states.

Whales have been spotted near the spill but they did not appear to be in distress.

For now, the weather conditions are keeping the oil away from the shore and it is hoped the waves will break up the heavy crude oil, allowing it to harden and sink back to the ocean floor.

The oil is not expected to reach land for at least another three days.

Officials are monitoring the environmental effects by boat and plane.

‘Highly complex’

BP – which is responsible under US federal law for the clean-up – said it was using four submersible vehicles, equipped with cameras and remote-controlled arms, to try to activate a blow-out preventer – a series of pipes and valves that could stop the leak.

1991: 520m gallons were deliberately released from Iraqi oil tankers during the first Gulf War to impede the US invasion
1979: 140m gallons were spilt over nine months after a well blow-out in the Bay of Campeche off Mexico’s coast
1979: 90m gallons leaked from a Greek oil tanker after it collided with another ship off the coast of Trinidad
1983: 80m gallons leaked into the Gulf over several months after a tanker collided with a drilling platform
1989: 11m gallons were spilt into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in the Exxon Valdez disaster

However, this was a “highly complex task” and “it may not be successful”, said chief operating officer of BP’s exploration and production unit, Doug Suttles.

If the blow-out preventer does not seal off the well, the company intends to place a large dome directly over the leaks to catch the oil and send it up to the surface, where it could be collected by ships.

This has been done before, but only in shallow waters, Mr Suttles said.

Another alternative is to drill a “relief well” intersecting the original well, but he warned that this might take two to three months to stop the flow.

BP has brought in more than 30 clean-up vessels and several aircraft to spray dispersant on the oil-slick, which by Monday night was estimated to have grown to about 600 sq miles (1,550 sq km).

The US Coast Guard said 32 vessels were waiting for conditions to improve to resume the clean-up.

It has also deployed 23,000ft (7km) of containment booms, with another 70,000ft of booms ready to be deployed when conditions allow.

Graphic of ROV on seabed

Presumed dead

The Deepwater Horizon had been carrying out exploratory drilling 52 miles south-east of Venice, Louisiana, when the blast occurred.

The search for 11 workers who are still missing has been called off. Another 126 workers were rescued.

An investigation into the cause of last Tuesday’s explosion is continuing.

In 2009, BP was fined a record $87m (£53m) for failing to improve safety conditions following a massive explosion that killed 15 people at its Texas City refinery.

The US Mineral Management Services found no violations on the Deepwater Horizon rig when it carried out routine inspections in February, March and April this year.

The current leak would have to continue for more than eight months to match the 11m-gallon spill from the oil tanker Exxon Valdez off Alaska in 1989, the worst oil spill in US history.

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