Drilling of a relief rig to help staunch an oil leak in the Timor Sea will begin within hours, the company at the centre of the oil spill disaster PTTEP Australasia said today.
The drilling is expected to take another three and a half weeks before the relief well intersects with the damage bore and attempts to plug the leak with mud, 2.6km below the seabed.
In the meantime oil will continue to flow uncapped into the sea at a rate the company now admits could be equivalent of up to 400 barrels a day.
So far, by the company's own estimates, more than 1215 tonnes of oil have spewed into the sea since the leak began on August 21 and that figure could double in the more than three weeks the relief drilling rig will take to plug the leak.
Local environment group Environs Kimberley flew over the damaged rig and the oil slick at the weekend and described the area as being "like a scene from a disaster movie."
Photos taken by the group show the slick darkening the sea as far as the eye can see in an area fanning out from the stricken West Atlas rig.
EK director Martin Pritchard said the slick now appeared to be heading for the Kimberley coast.
"Seeing it first hand was a real shock; it was like something from a disaster movie," Mr Pritchard said.
"The rig was billowing smoke and there was a sheen of oil from horizon to horizon. We followed the slick for 30km due east and all you could see from the cockpit was oil covering the sea.
"We could see that the slick had been heading north-east towards Indonesia.
"When we reached the rig we realized that currents were now carrying part of the slick south. This is a real worry if it's now heading for the Kimberley coast," Mr Pritchard said.
"We saw a massive quantity of oil still coming from the well, and we are not at all confident in the Federal Minister for Resources Martin Ferguson's statement that there is a reduction in the rate of flow. Other government sources admit that they are unable to measure the flow rate. The photos we have show a huge slick coming from the well.
"The Kimberley coast is one of the world's most intact tropical marine ecosystems, with a coral reef province of global significance. The seas in the area are known as a 'marine superhighway' because of the number of dolphins, whales, turtles, seabirds and fish found there."