A catastrophic chain of events has been triggered after an explosion ripped through the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform on 20 April, killing 11 workers.
The rig burned for two days before sinking off the south east coast of Louisiana. The cause of the blast is not clear but could have been caused by a build up of pressure inside the well, located 1,500 meters below the sea’s surface.
A huge oil slick is now heading towards the coastline, prompting fears of a environmental disaster.
Five thousand barrels of crude oil a day are now gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. Oil giant BP, which owns the well, says it could be up to a week before it is able to activate a device known as a blowout preventer to stop the spill.
It’s led to invevitable comparisons with the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, when a supertanker ran aground off Alaska. It leaked around 40,000 tonnes of oil in the worst US oil spill until now.
History repeated itself in 2002 when the Prestige oil tanker sank off the Galician coast in Spain, spilling up to 64,000 tonnes into the Atlantic.
US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warned on Monday that it could be several months before a relief well is operational in the Gulf of Mexico.
“The scenario is a very grave scenario. You are looking at potentially 90 days before you get to what is the ultimate solution here, and that is a relief well that’s going to have to be drilled down three and a half miles beloy the ocean floor. By the time you drill that well down, a lot of oil could spread, “ he said.
Tens of kilometers of floating boom have been laid to contain the oil slick but are unlikely to protect the region’s delicate ecosystem.