NEW ORLEANS — The Coast Guard discovered Saturday that oil is leaking from the damaged well that fed a massive rig that exploded last 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 had said no oil appeared to be escaping from the well head on the ocean floor. On Saturday, 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.
"This is a very serious spill, absolutely," Landry said.
Coast Guard and company officials estimate that as much as 1,000 barrels of oil is escaping 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, says it's studying how to stop the leak.
The sunken rig may have as much as 700,000 gallons of diesel on board, and an undetermined amount of oil has spilled from the rig itself.
BP said it has activated an extensive oil spill response, including the remotely operated vehicles to assess the well and 32 vessels to mop up the spill. The Marine Spill Response Corp., an energy industry cleanup consortium, also brought equipment.
Bad weather rolled in Friday, bringing with it strong wind, clouds and rain that interrupted efforts to contain the oil spill.
"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.