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Nation & World

Drilling rig that ran aground after storm remains difficult to reach for rescue team

(MCT) — ANCHORAGE, Alaska—Shell’s drilling rig Kulluk, perched for a day on stony ground off the shore of a small island south of Kodiak, remained perilously out of reach Tuesday for a salvage team trying to learn its condition and that of tanks holding thousands of gallons of fuel and other hazardous liquids.

The wave-battered rig, whose cheery painted colors were in stark contrast to the mortal danger it was in, was stuck in some 30 to 40 feet of water after breaking loose from its towlines for the fifth and final time Monday night. Efforts to drop two salvage experts to its deck by Coast Guard helicopters were abandoned Tuesday because of impossible winds and the brutish waves, but emergency operations officials said they would try again Wednesday, when the weather was supposed to be somewhat more favorable though still challenging.

In a pair of news conferences Tuesday, officials from Royal Dutch Shell, the Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said the rig appeared intact and there was no sign that any of the fuel, hydraulic fluid or other petroleum liquids on board had spilled.

The heavy cone-shaped rig is about 500 feet from Sitkalidak Island about 10 miles southeast of Old Harbor. Steve Russell, the on-scene coordinator for the DEC, said most of the land in the area was owned by either the Old Harbor village Native corporation or the village itself.

No one has been seriously injured since the rig first broke free of its tow line in a Gulf of Alaska storm Thursday. Three workers who suffered minor injuries have returned to duty, a Shell official said Tuesday. There’s been no sign of environmental damage or injury to any wildlife. The area contains several salmon streams and habitat for three species with Endangered Species Act listings: Steller sea lions, Steller’s eiders and southwest sea otters, according to the DEC.

In other developments on the ongoing drama Tuesday, Shell officially accepted responsibility for state and federal costs associated with the emergency operations and any spills that still might occur. Initially, the DEC listed the operator of the towing vessel Aiviq, Edison Chouest Offshore of Louisiana, as the responsible party, but that changed in the course of the last two days.

A Shell official, Sean Churchfield, Shell’s operations manager for Alaska, said the company would investigate what went wrong once the immediate crisis was resolved. He said that report might not be made public.

Capt. Paul Mehler, commander for the Coast Guard’s Anchorage sector, said the Coast Guard will also conduct an investigation, but he promised it would be public.

The Kulluk spent a short drilling season in the Arctic, cutting the top portion of an exploratory well before it had to be moved south for the season. After a stay in Dutch Harbor, it was readied for the tow to the Seattle area for maintenance at a shipyard. In new information reported Tuesday, Churchfield said the go-ahead for the voyage was made by Shell officials but the actual time of departure was in the hands of the captain for the Aiviq, the specially built, four-engine tow vessel.

The journey across the Gulf of Alaska was planned to take place a rowboat’s pace — about 4 knots. With the voyage expected to last up to four weeks, Churchfield acknowledged that any weather forecast available at departure would be meaningless long before the vessels reached their destination.

As it happened, a week out of Dutch, the Aiviq and Kulluk encountered a big winter storm. The towline snapped on Thursday. After a tow was reestablished Friday, the Aiviq’s engines all failed. The causes of both failures are still unresolved.

A fleet of rescue ships and tugs came to the assistance of the Aiviq and Kulluk, and though the Aiviq’s engines were restarted and towlines reestablished four more times, they all failed.

The Kulluk left Dutch Harbor loaded with fuel — about 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel is still on board. Russell, the DEC official, said some was necessary to operate generators and other equipment during the voyage, but most of it was there for ballast. Another 12,000 gallons of other petroleum products, including hydraulic fluid, is also on board.

The problems of the Kulluk has focused unwanted attention on Shell, whose offshore Arctic drilling program was already controversial with delays, regulatory problems and concerns about whether it could manage an oil spill in the far north. After the second news conference Tuesday, Curtis Smith, Shell’s Alaska spokesman, acknowledged the criticism.

“Shell has a long history of operating safely and responsibly offshore in Alaska, and we are proud of it,” Smith said. “In light of this incident, we need to do better — Alaskans expects it, and so do we.”

In addition to the big emergency team from Shell, the Coast Guard and the state that’s been operating out of a ballroom in the Marriott Hotel downtown, Shell officials worldwide have had their attention focused on Alaska for the past week, Smith said.

“When this incident is over, we’re going to revisit everything that led up to the situation that we’re in today. We’re going to apply those learnings not only to future operations in Alaska, but global operations, in terms of marine transport, towing systems, every thing related to it because the lessons learned are that important because so much is at stake,” Smith said.

He also came to the defense of Edison Chouest, the politically-connected contractor that owns and runs the Aiviq.

“All of our contractors have to bring expertise to the table that meets Shell’s standards,” he said. “Our reputation speaks for itself globally in terms of performance. There’s no such thing as bringing the B team anywhere, but especially to the Arctic.”

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