The Associated Press September 3, 2010, 5:03PM ET

Coast Guard: Sheen not likely from active oil leak

A day after a fire on an offshore oil platform off the central Louisiana coast, federal investigators have gone aboard to make sure no oil is leaking from the site.

The Coast Guard said Friday that no oil is believed to be leaking from the platform, which erupted in flames on Thursday and forced 13 workers into the water.

A light sheen about 100 yards long and 10 yards wide was spotted near the platform during a Coast Guard flyover Friday morning. Petty Officer Steve Lehmann says officials believe it is oil that remained after firefighting efforts on Thursday and not an active leak.

A patrol boat and a helicopter surveyed the area Friday near the Vermilion 380 platform, which is owned by Houston-based Mariner Energy Inc.

The Coast Guard said the sheen near the Vermilion 380 indicated an extremely small amount of oil in the water, as little as 1 gallon.

The fire erupted Thursday morning, forcing 13 workers to evacuate. No injuries were reported and the fire was out by afternoon. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

The company said the platform was not an exploration rig but a platform above 7 producing wells, and disputed reports of an explosion.

"This was a fire, not an explosion," spokesman Tom Sommers said Friday.

Damage was largely contained to the living quarters on the platform, Sommers said.

The platform may be able to resume operations in a few months, he said.

The production wells were shut down for maintenance shortly before the fire broke out. A crew was on the platform painting and sandblasting when the fire occurred, Sommers said.

The BP PLC-leased rig Deepwater Horizon, which sank April 22 after an explosion and fire, had been drilling and was not producing oil or gas when it exploded April 20, killing 11 people and leading to a spill of more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf.

The Mariner Energy-owned platform was 200 miles west of the spill site, but everything from the structures to the operations to the safety devices were different.

Yet when word of the latest mishap spread, residents along the coast could think only of the three-month spill that began after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

"It's unbelievable," said Sophie Esch, 28, a Tulane graduate student from Berlin. "They should finally stop drilling in the Gulf. They should shut down all the drilling out there and not give permission to do any more. They've shown that it's just unsafe."

Stephanie Breaux of Gueydan, La., said her son, Joseph Breaux, 28, was aboard the Mariner platform. She said she heard from his wife Thursday morning that an explosion had happened. "It was like a nightmare, a bad dream that I just wanted to wake up from," she said.

She said her son was airlifted to a hospital in Houma, La., and called her.

"He just wanted to let me know he was okay. That's really all he wanted to talk about," she said.

Stephanie Breaux said her son told her he helped one man who didn't have a life preserver stay afloat. "They were able to hold on to one of the fellas. They were linked arm-to-arm," she said.

Platforms like the Vermilion 380 are vastly different from oil rigs like the Deepwater Horizon, which was leased by BP but owned by Transocean Ltd. They are usually brought in after wells are already drilled and sealed and oil is flowing at a predictable pressure. A majority of platforms in the Gulf do not require crews on board.

"A production platform is much more stable," said Andy Radford, an API expert on offshore oil drilling.

Many platforms, especially those in shallower water, stand on legs that are drilled into the sea floor. Like a giant octopus, each spreads numerous pipelines and can tap into many wells at once.

The Deepwater Horizon was drilling a well a mile beneath the sea, which made trying to plug it after it blew out an incredible challenge, with BP trying techniques never tested. The platform that caught fire, meanwhile, was operating in 340 feet of water in a shallow area of the Gulf known as a major source of gas.

Responding to any oil spill in such a shallow spot would be much easier than in deep water, where crews depend on remote-operated vehicles to access equipment on the sea floor.

Platforms do not have blowout preventers like deep water rigs that are supposed to shut down wells if there is problem. But they are usually equipped with a series of redundant valves that can shut off oil and gas at different points along the pipeline.

Mariner Energy officials said there were seven active production wells on its platform, and they were shut down shortly before the fire broke out.

The platform was still intact and a small portion appeared burned, Cassidy said. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the company told him the fire began in 100 barrels of light oil condensate.

A Homeland Security update obtained by The Associated Press said the platform was producing 58,800 gallons of oil and 900,000 cubic feet of gas per day. The platform can store 4,200 gallons of oil.

The workers aboard the platform were found huddled in the water together, holding hands and wearing life jackets.

A captain of the Crystal Clear, a 110-foot boat that rescued them, said his craft was 25 miles away when it received a distress call.

When Capt. Dan Shaw arrived at the scene, the workers had been in the water for two hours and were thirsty and tired.

"We gave them soda and water, anything they wanted to drink," Shaw said. "They were just glad to be on board with us."

Shaw said workers told him the blast was so sudden that they did not have time to get into lifeboats. They did not mention what might have caused it.

"They just said there was an explosion, there was a fire," Shaw said. "It happened very quick."

Crew members were flown to a hospital and released by early Thursday evening.

There are about 3,400 platforms operating in the Gulf, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Together they pump about a third of the America's domestic oil, forming the backbone of the country's petroleum industry.

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Associated Press writers Harry R. Weber, Michael Kunzelman and Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans, Chris Kahn in New York, Eileen Sullivan, Matthew Daly, Gerry Bodlander and Dina Capiello in Washington, Garance Burke in Fresno, Calif., researcher Monika Mathur in New York and videographer John Mone in New Orleans contributed to this report.


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