By STAN LEHMAN, Associated Press
SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazilian prosecutors said Saturday they will file criminal charges against 17 executives of Chevron Corp. and drilling contractor Transocean Ltd. for a new oil leak near the offshore well where at least 110,000 gallons (about 416,000 liters) spilled late last year.
Those targeted include George Buck, chief operating officer for Chevron's Brazilian division, federal prosecutors' spokesman Marcelo del Negri said by telephone.
He said prosecutors would file the charges including "environmental crimes" in a federal court next week, but he did not provide further details.
Other than Buck, he did not know how many of the executives worked for California-based Chevron and how many for Transocean, the drilling contractor for the well where the leak occurred last year.
Del Negri said a federal judge signed an order late Saturday prohibiting the 17 executives from leaving the country.
In a statement e-mailed Saturday night, Chevron said that neither it nor its executives had been "formally notified of any action by the judiciary" and that "any legal decision will be abided by the company and its employees."
On Thursday, Chevron confirmed that there was a "small new oil seepage" and said it was working to collect the crude.
The size of the new leak is unknown, Brazil's National Petroleum Agency, known as ANP said, explaining the leak was detected because an oil slick appeared on the ocean surface.
An ANP spokeswoman said the new leak was "not coming from the well; it's been sealed. It seems to be coming from fissures on the ocean floor near the well," where the leak occurred last year. She spoke on condition of anonymity, saying she was not authorized to discuss the matter.
Chevron said in its statement that ANP approved its request to temporarily suspend its activities in order to better understand the reservoirs where it has been drilling.
Ibama, Brazil's environmental protection agency said in a statement posted on its website that Chevron has until March 20 to provide "detailed information on the action taken to mitigate the environmental impact" of the new leak.
The new leak is another challenge for plans to safely extract oil from the offshore finds Brazil has seen in recent years. It's estimated at least 50 billion barrels of oil lie off Brazil's coast, the biggest discoveries in the Americas in three decades.
Oil started leaking from cracks on the ocean floor at the site of a Chevron appraisal well last Nov. 7, about 230 miles (370 kilometers) off the northeastern coast of Rio de Janeiro state. About two weeks later, ANP said that the leak was under control.
Experts had warned, however, that there was a high risk of oil seepage resuming.
Chevron said at the time then that the spill occurred because it underestimated the pressure in an underwater reservoir.
It said that caused crude oil to rush up a bore hole and eventually escape into the surrounding seabed. The oil leaked through at least seven narrow fissures on the ocean floor, all within 160 feet (50 meters) of the well head.
The work at the Frade field in the Campos Basin where the leaks occurred is among Chevron's "biggest capital investments," according to the company's website.
The field produces close to 62,000 barrels of oil a day.
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