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Timor Sea oil leak plugged, operator says

An oil rig that had been leaking into the Timor Sea for 10 weeks was plugged Tuesday, and a massive fire blazing aboard the structure was largely extinguished, the rig operator said.
Gilly Llewellyn, the World Wildlife Fund's conservation director in Australia, on Sept. 30 collects samples from a waxy substance found in the water around the Montara oil rig leak in the Timor Sea.
Gilly Llewellyn, the World Wildlife Fund's conservation director in Australia, on Sept. 30 collects samples from a waxy substance found in the water around the Montara oil rig leak in the Timor Sea.KARA BURNS / World Wildlife Fund via AFP-Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

An oil rig that had been leaking into the Timor Sea for 10 weeks has been plugged, and a massive fire blazing aboard the structure was largely extinguished, the rig operator said.

Officials with PTTEP Australasia said a mixture of heavy mud and brine poured into the well on Tuesday finally stopped the leak. A fire that had broken out Sunday on the West Atlas rig and Montara wellhead platform was almost completely out, the company said.

"We are relieved and thankful that we have killed the well and stopped the main fire," PTTEP Australasia chief financial officer Jose Martins said in a statement.

The blaze started when workers were pouring mud into a hole that had been leaking an estimated 400 barrels of oil a day since Aug. 21. The company says it does not know what sparked the blaze.

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. Local fishermen also reported skin rashes and diarrhea after eating fish.

On Tuesday, PTTEP dumped 3,400 barrels of heavy mud and 1,000 barrels of brine into the well, stopping the leak and cutting off the fire's fuel source. Some material on top of the rig might still be on fire, but was expected to burn out as the fuel dries up, the company said.

Officials will monitor the rig for the next couple of days to ensure it remains stable, and may spray the wellhead platform with ocean water to cool it down before attempting to re-board the rig to assess the damage, the company said.

This Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009, image provided by PTTEP Australasia shows the West Atlas oil rig after a fire on it was put out 150 miles (250 kilometers) off Australia's northwest coast. The oil rig that had been leaking into the Timor Sea for 10 weeks was plugged Tuesday, and a massive fire blazing aboard the structure was largely extinguished.PTTEP Australasia

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

Martins said PTTEP would cooperate with the inquiry and pay for the cleanup.

The company also said Wednesday that the wellhead, which was still under construction, would not start full production as expected in the first quarter of 2010 but possibly later in the year.