By JON GAMBRELL, Associated Press
LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — A natural gas fire that killed two people and destroyed a Chevron Corp. rig off the coast of Nigeria has stopped on its own, the company said Tuesday, ending an ocean inferno that burned for 46 days.
The natural gas at the Funiwa field, just off Nigeria's Bayelsa state, stopped bubbling to the surface of the Atlantic Ocean on Friday, extinguishing a fire visible from the coast, Chevron spokesman Russell A. Johnson said. Chevron only confirmed the fire had stopped on Tuesday. Johnson said the company wanted to monitor the well for some time before making a public announcement.
Johnson acknowledged gas could begin flowing again from the well and said Chevron would continue to dig a relief well nearby to permanently plug the site.
"We continue to watch to ensure gas doesn't begin to flow," Johnson said.
Those living near the rig awoke Jan. 16 to a series of explosions from Chevron's KS Endeavor natural gas rig, which sits only 10 kilometers (6 miles) from shore. Two workers died in the blast, who officials have identified as nationals of India and France.
The raging fire at the site has softened the steel of the rig, causing it to collapse into the ocean.
Chevron says it continues to investigate what started the fire. Nigeria's government believes a "gas kick" — a major buildup of gas pressure from drilling — caused by an industrial accident was responsible for the blaze.
Locals have complained about rashes, breathing difficulty and gastrointestinal problems since the fire began.
Chevron has said its own tests have found no air pollution from the blaze, although it acknowledges some fish have been killed by the fire. Fishing is how many in the surrounding communities earn a living.
Nigeria's government has been slow to respond to the fire, which came only weeks after a spill at an offshore field for Royal Dutch Shell PLC saw nearly 40,000 barrels — or 1.68 million gallons — spill into the Atlantic Ocean. That spill was the worst offshore spill for Nigeria in more than a decade.
Foreign firms have pumped oil out of Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta for more than 50 years. Despite the billions of dollars flowing into Nigeria's government, many in the delta remain desperately poor, living in polluted waters without access to proper medical care, education or work.
Nigeria produces about 2.4 million barrels of crude oil a day, making it Africa's top producer. Chevron had hoped its KS Endeavor gas rig would usher in a new push for gas in the country.
Nigeria, an OPEC nation, is a top energy supplier to the U.S.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.