Aircraft sent to Australian oil rig leak


June 18, 2010 Updated Aug 22, 2009 at 2:31 AM EDT

Aircraft carrying tonnes of chemicals were Saturday sent to spray a massive oil and gas leak which forced the evacuation of an oil rig off Australia's northwest coast, officials said.

The spill, about eight nautical miles (15 kilometres) long and 30 metres wide, began just before dawn Friday at the West Atlas drilling rig, 250 kilometres from the Australian mainland, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said.

All 69 workers on board the rig were evacuated to Darwin and the Bangkok-based company that operates it, PTTEP Australasia, was undertaking urgent repairs to the well head, AMSA spokeswoman Tracey Jiggins said.

"This leak has occurred in one of the remotest locations possible, making any operation difficult," Jiggins said.

"It is too early to determine the full impact of this incident."

A Hercules carrier plane on loan from Singapore loaded with about 50 tonnes of dispersant chemicals would spray the Timor Sea site Saturday, she said, adding that the oil appeared to be evaporating as fast as it flowed.

"That's encouraging for us," she said.

Two other aircraft were on standby for support, she added.

PTTEP said about 40 barrels of oil had been discharged in the initial incident, and it was still attempting to bring the leak under control at the rig, which is owned by Norway's Seadrill.

"The size of the spill is not known," it said in a statement.

Marine authorities said the spill was unlikely to reach the Australian coast, with calm weather and sea conditions likely to take it away from the shore.

Hong Kong-based shipping company Swire this month offered Australia 21 million US dollars in compensation over a massive chemical and oil spill during cylonic conditions off Australia's north-east in March.

Swire's cargo liner Pacific Adventurer released about 200,000 litres (53,000 US gallons) of heavy fuel oil off the coast of Queensland state, blackening scores of popular tourist beaches in one of the country's worst spills.

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