NEW ORLEANS — The Coast Guard discovered Saturday that oil is leaking from the damaged well underneath a massive rig that exploded this week off Louisiana's coast, while bad weather halted efforts to clean up the mess that threatens the area's fragile marine ecosystem.
For days, the Coast Guard has said no oil appeared to be escaping from the well head on the ocean floor. Rear Adm. Mary Landry said the leak was a new discovery but could have begun when the rig sank on Thursday, two days after the initial explosion.
"We thought what we were dealing with as of yesterday was a surface residual (oil) from the mobile offshore drilling unit," Landry said. "In addition to that is oil emanating from the well. It is a big change from yesterday.... This is a very serious spill, absolutely."
Coast Guard and company officials estimate that as much as 1,000 barrels of oil is leaking each day after studying information from remotely operated vehicles and the size of the oil slick surrounding the blast site. The rainbow-colored sheen of oil stretched 20 miles by 20 miles on Saturday — about 25 times larger than it appeared to be a day earlier, Landry said.
Eleven workers are still missing from the Deepwater Horizon rig that sank Thursday about 50 miles from Louisiana's coast. They are presumed dead, and the search for them was called off Friday.
BP PLC, which leased the rig and is taking the lead in the cleanup, and the government have been using the remotely operated vehicles to try to stop the leak by closing valves on the well deep underwater. If that doesn't work, the company could drill what's called an intervention well to control the oil flow. But the intervention drilling could take months.
"Over the next several days, we should determine which method is the best one to follow," said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP Exploration and Production. "A huge number of engineers from ourselves, working with (the government) and across the industry are putting together the best technology and know-how to solve this problem."
Complicating efforts to stop the leak is the well head's depth at 5,000 feet underwater, said Lars Herbst, the regional director for the Minerals Management Service. Leaks have been fixed at similar depths before, but the process is difficult, he said.
The stormy weather rolled in Friday, bringing with it strong wind, clouds and rain that interrupted efforts to contain the oil spill.