The flow of oil leaking from a well in the Timor Sea northwest of Australia has been stopped after more than two months. Operators of the West Atlas drilling platform also say a fire on the rig has been extinguished. Conservationists say the oil and gas spill is one of Australia's worst environmental disasters.
Although the leak beneath the West Atlas drilling platform has been stopped, engineers say more work needs to done before they can be sure the damaged well has been permanently plugged. They hope to board the burned-out rig in the next few days to complete the job.
Oil and natural gas had been seeping in the sea more than 200 kilometers northwest of Australia for 10 weeks.
The Thai-owned company operating the rig, PTTEP Australasia, says it pumped thousands of barrels of mud to seal the leak. It has been a complex task, with emergency crews trying to fill a hole just 25 centimeters wide deep beneath the seabed.
PTTEP executive Jose Martins warns that it could take up to seven years to deal with the spill.
"We do not underestimate the significantly increased technical complexity, logistical challenges and hazards of the work now required in the wake of the damage caused by the fire to the well-head platform and to the West Atlas rig," Martins said.
The problems on the rig got worse a few days ago, when it caught fire after a fourth attempt to cap the well failed. The flames that have been soaring into the sky have now been extinguished.
Environmentalists want to know why it has taken so long for the flow to be stopped. They are concerned for the well-being of the region's dolphins, whales and other marine species, including rare turtles.
Australian Resources Minister Martin Ferguson says the government will conduct a thorough inquiry into the disaster.
"We will assess the cause of the incident and then lessons to be learned and we will strengthen the law if need be," Ferguson said.
PTTEP so far has not commented on what triggered the accident, which resulted in one of Australia's worst oil spills.