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Leaking oil rig catches fire off Australia’s coast

A massive fire erupted on an oil rig that has been leaking into the Timor Sea, the latest drama in a 10-week saga to plug the hole.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A massive fire erupted on an oil rig that has been leaking into the Timor Sea and Australia's government on Monday promised an investigation, the latest drama in a 10-week saga to plug the hole.

Rig operator PTTEP Australasia said no one was injured and nonessential workers were evacuated after the fire broke out on the West Atlas rig and Montara wellhead platform on Sunday.

The blaze started when workers began pumping heavy mud into a leaking well casing. An estimated 400 barrels of oil a day have escaped from the hole since Aug. 21.

Officials had planned to pour more mud into the leak on Monday in the hopes of removing the source of fuel from the fire, which was sending massive plumes of smoke into the sky. But in a statement Monday evening, the company said it was still in the process of mixing 4,000 barrels of heavy mud, and would not be ready to pour it down the well until Tuesday.

'Unanswered questions'
On Sunday, PTTEP Australasia chief financial officer Jose Martins said the company doesn't know how the blaze started.

"Presently there are many unanswered questions, including what caused the fire," Martins told reporters in Perth. "Our sole focus now is the safety of all personnel, bringing the fire under control and completing the well kill."

Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson said Monday that once the spill is contained he would launch an official inquiry.

"Our requirement is to assess the cause of the accident and any lessons to be learnt, and that could lead to a change in the regulatory environment," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Ferguson later told reporters in Melbourne that if PTTEP was "found to have been at fault with respect to any of their responsibilities, then any potential action will be appropriately considered at the time."

The oil slick from the rig, about 150 miles off Australia's northwest coast, now stretches across thousands of miles of remote ocean. Indonesia said last week that thousands of dead fish and clumps of oil have been found drifting near its coastline.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Monday he was "deeply disturbed" at the latest turn of events on the rig, signaling the government's rising frustration that fixing the spill is taking so long.

"Do I think this is acceptable? No, I don't," Rudd told Fairfax Radio Network. "Are we angry with this company? Yes we are. Are were trying to do everything we can to get this under control? You betcha."

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