The federal government has set up a security zone around the wreckage of an oil rig that exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, leading to the massive BP spill, the Justice Department said Wednesday.
The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig lies on the seafloor about 50 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast. Vessels and aircraft will patrol the zone that extends 750 feet in all directions from the rig and its debris field. It was needed to protect evidence for possible criminal and civil cases, the government, said, though it was not clear what prompted the action now, more than six months after the explosion.
The zone includes surface waters and the seafloor and will be in place for at least a year or even longer.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Louis Moore Jr. in New Orleans signed an order setting up the security zone on Oct. 8. The Deepwater Horizon sits on the seafloor about 1 mile deep and about 1 mile from the BP well that spewed more than 200 million gallons of crude. To reach the actual rig would take very specialized equipment.
"It establishes what would be at any crime scene, the yellow tape around the perimeter of it," said Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman. "It informs the parties that have the capabilities (to enter the zone) that they don't have the right to enter that space."
Fishermen who inadvertently venture into the security zone would be in violation of the court order. But Hornbuckle said the security zone was not targeting fishermen and other boats that stray into the area by accident.
He was unsure if there were warnings in the area to indicate that the area was off-limits. The Coast Guard did not return telephone calls seeking comment Wednesday.
Justice Department court documents that outline the government's reasons for requesting the security zone were placed under seal.
The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the April 20 explosion.
"It is an ongoing investigation, and we will follow it aggressively where the evidence leads us," Hornbuckle said. He said the government might need to retrieve items from the wreckage site.
Transocean Ltd., the company that operated the rig when it exploded, declined to comment on the government's move. BP PLC did not return a telephone call seeking comment.