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Latest effort fails to plug Australian oil leak

A THIRD attempt to plug a well that has been leaking oil into the sea off northwestern Australia for nearly two months failed today, the operator said.

Conservationists are increasingly concerned a slick that stretches across thousands of miles (kilometers) of remote ocean will harm whales, dolphins or birds, though only the deaths of about a dozen sea birds have been reported so far.

An estimated 400 barrels a day of oil has been leaking into the Timor Sea from an undersea fissure that erupted Aug. 21 beneath the West Atlas rig about 150 miles (250 kilometers) northwest of the Kimberley region's coast.

PTTEP Australasia, a branch of Thai-owned PTT Exploration and Production Co. Ltd., says it has hired experts to mitigate the environmental threat, and the Australian government has said the leak so far has not threatened the coast.

Experts using electromagnetic detection equipment have tried three times to find the exact point in a 10 inch-wide (25 centimeter-wide) pipe where the leak is occurring. The leak is thought to be more than 1.5 miles (2.6 kilometers) underground.

PTTEP said in a statement today the third attempt to find the leak had failed, and it would take three or four days to set up another attempt.

When the hole is found, the experts will drill into the pipe beneath the fissure and pump in heavy mud to stem the leak and plug the pipe.

John Wardrop, an environmental scientist hired by PTTEP Australia to monitor the leak, said there was no sign that the leak has caused major environmental damage - probably because the site is far from ecologically sensitive areas.

"A small spill close to a nesting, roosting area of course can be catastrophic, particularly for birds, whereas a much larger spill in the middle of nowhere, the impact's going to be a lot less," Wardrop told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio yesterday.
"The early indications of this one is that the wildlife hit is actually quite small."


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