UPDATE 5pm: A specialist team from Perth is travelling to the site of a fire on the West Atlas oil rig, which has been spewing oil into the Timor Sea for the past 10 weeks.
Thai-based rig operator PTTEP Australasia said earlier today the West Atlas oil rig and Montara well head about 250km off the Kimberley coast had caught fire during the company’s latest attempt to plug the leaking well.
The company said the leaking well was intercepted today at 9.30am and workers had begun pumping heavy mud into the well in a bid to plug it when the fire broke out about 12.10pm.
“The fire is burning around the cantilever portion of the West Atlas rig which is located directly above the Montara wellhead platform,” PTTEP said in a statement.
PTTEP said a firefighting vessel, the Nor Captain, had earlier today poured water onto the fire but had since moved away from the rig.
“Seawater is also being pumped down the relief well from the West Triton rig in an effort to ‘wet’ the gas and help bring the fire under control,” the company said.
All personnel on the West Triton rig, which was towed from Singapore to help plug the leak, and on nearby work vessels were safe and all non-essential personnel had been evacuated.
PTTEP Australasia has been trying in vain to plug the leaking well since it began spewing about 400 barrels of oil a day into the Timor Sea on August 21.
Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson said the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority had been called out to help respond to the fire.
Geoscience Australia and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority had been placed on standby to provide technical advice.
“Some of the world's leading experts are working to fix the leaking well and respond to this latest problem,” Mr Ferguson said in a statement.
“I am seeking regular advice on this matter from PTTEP, my department, Geoscience Australia and NOPSA, as well as some of the best minds and most experienced hands in the industry.”
Federal opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt has called for an emergency taskforce of ministers and agencies to deal with the problem as a priority.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said the community needed to know what caused the fire and what it meant for the well-killing operation
Environmental groups have been outraged by the oil leak and supporters of The Wilderness Society and the Greens staged a protest outside the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association in Perth on Friday.
The spill has cost the Thai company about $177 million and its clean-up bill has so far exceeded $5 million.
The Federal Government released a report on Friday revealing hundreds of birds and marine species were at immediate risk from the spill.
While the total effects of the spill were yet to be determined, the report found scientists had found dead and dying birds and sea snakes in the area.
They also counted 462 whales and dolphins, 2801 birds, 62 sea snakes and 25 turtles in the affected areas over five days of observation.