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Flare alight on gas leak platform

A flare is still alight on an offshore platform which has been evacuated following a gas leak, it has emerged.

However Total, which operates the Elgin platform, said the wind is blowing the gas plume in the opposite direction to the flare.

All 238 workers were evacuated from the company's Elgin PUQ platform, about 150 miles off the coast of Aberdeen, following the discovery of the leak on Sunday.

It could take as long as six months to drill a relief well to stop the release of gas. An exclusion zone of two nautical miles (2.3 miles) has been set up around Elgin, with ships and aircraft ordered to stay away from the area. On Tuesday night it emerged that a flare is still burning on the installation.

David Hainsworth, health, safety and environment manager for Total, told BBC Newsnight Scotland: "The flare is still alight on the main production platform, however the wind is blowing the gas plume in the opposite direction away from this flare. We know the weather forecast is such that the wind direction remains the same for the following five to six days and we're evaluating options to extinguish this flare."

A coastguard spokesman said flares on offshore platforms are commonly used to burn excess hydrocarbon gases that the rig does not use or capture. Total E&P UK, which operates the Elgin platform, said it is taking "all possible measures" to try to identify the source and cause of the leak and to bring it under control. It is looking at various options on how to stem the release of gas.

Shell has reduced its workforce on two offshore installations close to the Total platform as a precaution. Around 85 staff have been taken off the company's Shearwater platform and the nearby Noble Hans Deul drilling rig, leaving a workforce of 117 people. Shell also said it has brought forward plans for maintenance at Shearwater and is shutting down production in a "controlled manner".

A sheen on the water is present near the platform, estimated to extend over 4.8 square kilometres (1.85 square miles) and measure between two and 20 tonnes in volume. Total said its preliminary assessments indicate there has been no significant impact on the environment because of the leak.

Energy minister Charles Hendry told BBC Scotland that there were reasons for burning the flare and said he has been told that it can be shut down remotely if there is a problem. He said: "Clearly, when you have a significant amount of gas escaping, there is a case for trying to burn some of it off to get rid of it rather than leaving it as a hazard elsewhere, so there has to be a decision made on the balance between safe operation and flaring off the gas that can be flared off and closing down the full platform." Mr Hendry added that he was "very comfortable" with the agreed emergency plan for Elgin.

Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said: "This is an abandoned platform hundred of miles out at sea and it's a very serious situation and of course we can't go out and see it for ourselves so we need the company to put all the relevant information into the public domain and have absolute transparency. I'm also asking today both the UK Government and the oil company to put the information on how they calculate these risks into the public domain as well."

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