The Coast Guard says oil is now leaking from the damaged well that fed a massive rig that exploded this week off Louisiana's coast.
Guard officials on Saturday estimated that as much as 1,000 barrels of oil is escaping each day from the well head on the ocean floor, increasing the threat to the Gulf's fragile ecosystem.
As recently as Friday, the Coast Guard had said no oil appeared to be leaking. Rear Adm. Mary Landry said on Saturday that the leak was a new discovery but could have begun when the rig sank on Thursday, two days after the initial explosion.
BP PLC, which leased the rig and is taking the lead in the cleanup, says it's studying how to stop the leak.
Eleven workers are still missing from the Deepwater Horizon rig that sank. They are presumed dead, and the search for them was called off Friday as bad weather rolled in.
"We had 8-foot seas and a storm going through, that was a reason for cause and concern," said Coast Guard Petty Officer John Edwards.
So far, crews have retrieved about 1,052 barrels of oily water, he said.
The sunken rig may have as much as 700,000 gallons of diesel on board, and there are fears that the well the rig was drilling could leak.
An oil sheen appeared to cover an area about two miles wide and eight miles long Friday afternoon.
About half a dozen boats were using booms to trap the thin sheen, which extended about seven miles north of the rig site. There was no sign yet of wildlife being affected.
New safety rules
Federal officials had already been working on new rules for offshore drilling before Tuesday's blast.
The U.S. Minerals and Management Service documented more than 1,400 offshore oil drilling accidents between 2001 and 2007. It's 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 refueling the crane, allowing diesel fuel to overflow. Records show the fire was quickly contained, but caused $60,000 in 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 that would require rig operators to develop programs focused on preventing human error, an area that 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 programs to prevent human error.
BP PLC, which leased the Deepwater Horizon, opposes what it says are "extensive prescriptive regulations."
Meanwhile, the search for the missing workers had been called off because officials believe the men never made it off the platform that erupted into a giant fireball. The Coast Guard says it will resume the search if any ships in the area see anything.
The 11 missing workers came from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Neither the Coast Guard nor their employers have released their names, though several of their families have come forward.
Karl Kleppinger Sr., whose 38-year-old son, Karl, was one of the missing workers, said he doesn't blame the Coast Guard for calling off the search.
"Given the magnitude of the explosion and the fire, I don't see where you would be able to find anything," said Kleppinger, of Zachary, La.
The other 115 crew members made it off the platform; several were hurt but only two remained hospitalized. The most seriously injured worker was expected to be released within about 10 days.