Late this past March, the world's largest offshore oil platform sank five days after powerful explosions rocked the rig. Ten people were killed in the incident, which occurred 120 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Salvage Hopes

The five-day saga started with a series of gas explosions on the platform, known as the P-36. Water then flooded in through a ruptured pillar into the buoyancy tanks beneath the surface, which keep the platform afloat. The structure then started to sink and listed over badly as the damaged pillar went completely under water.

After the blasts, experts from around the world were flown in by Petrobras, the Brazilian state oil company which owns the rig, in an effort to keep the platform afloat. Although salvage teams tried to save it by pumping nitrogen and compressed air into the tanks to expel the water, high winds and rough seas hindered their efforts. Soon after, the platform shifted suddenly, causing it to sink.

Salvage experts have said there is no possibility of raising the platform, and it will be difficult to recover the bodies of the workers believed to have gone down with it.

Environmental Costs

There were fears that the 395,000 gallons of crude and diesel in the underwater pipelines and onboard tanks could have spilled into the ocean. However, after the incident, Petrobras spokespersons, government officials and environmental groups said that this accident probably would do less environmental damage than other recent spills because most of the fuel on the platforms - 312,000 gallons - was diesel used to power onboard machinery. Diesel floats more easily than crude oil and is easier to collect, environmentalists said. Experts explained that the spill was unlikely to reach land, further minimizing environmental harm.

Greater environmental damage also was avoided since the well heads, located a mile under the surface, remained closed. After Petrobras submarines inspected the well heads, the company's exploration and production director Carlos Tadeu Fraga reported, "The well heads are completely closed and there is no chance they will be damaged or open. An oil spill from the bottom is ruled out."

Carlos Henrique Mendes of the Brazilian environmental authority IBAMA explained that the primary goal was to contain the oil that did spill. "The concern is to get the absorption barriers around the oil," he said. "In these conditions we expect the environmental impact to be quite minimal."

Garo Batmanian, secretary general of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature in Brazil, also said the environmental costs would minor. "It is not a biodiverse area. It is almost off the continental shelf, The current is also not brining it to the coast," he explained.

Disastrous History

This recent spill is the third major oil spill to occur during the past one-and-a-half years at sites run by Petrobras. In January of last year, the company dumped as much oil and fuel as was on the P-36 into the bay of Rio de Janeiro, causing a great deal of environmental damage. Six months later, it was responsible for dumping four times as much crude oil into one of Brazil's main rivers.

These incidents are causing many to question the company's safety procedures. Family members of the oil workers on the platform that sank most recently have said they believe pressure by the company for increased production may have led to corners being cut on safety.