Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Stormy Weather Keeps Salvage Crews From Grounded Oil Rig

US Coast Guard officials are expected to make another attempt today to airlift a salvage crew to a drill ship grounded off an island south of Kodiak, with about 150,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid aboard.

The Unified Command in Anchorage, which includes US Coast Guard, state and industry representatives, said early today that the weather had calmed somewhat, with winds early today at about 23 knots (26 miles an hour) and six foot waves, with swells to about seven feet.

The 17 crewmembers aboard the 266-foot Royal Dutch Shell offshore drilling rig Kulluk, which does not have its own propulsion system, were evacuated by the Coast Guard during the weekend.
Earlier on the Kulluk was being battered by winds up to 70 knots and 50-foot seas.

The latest Coast Guard flyover of the conical drill unit Kulluk indicated that the vessel remains grounded, but stable near Sitkalidak Island. The flight crew’s aerial inspection has found no signs of a fuel spill from the vessel. The Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley and an additional support vessel are standing by to assist as needed. The Unified command continues to implement contingency plans, including staging spill response equipment to the area.

Priorities for the Unified Command are the safety of personnel and protection of the environment. The environmental organization Oceana noted that the area in which the Kulluk grounded is critical habitat for endangered Steller sea lions and threatened sea otters, and there are important fisheries in the area as well.

Shell has agreed to take responsibility for the cost of federal and state emergency operations and any fuel spills, should they occur.

The incident began on Dec. 27 when the Kulluk, which was being towed from Dutch Harbor to Seattle for maintenance, was cut loose after a towline snapped in stormy seas. The towing vessel Aivig, owned by a Louisiana firm, was hauling the Kulluk, which has no propulsion of its own, when the towline snapped. Another towline was attached but then the Aivig’s engines failed. Efforts continued to keep control of the Kulluk but at length the tug crews, fighting severe weather, intentionally let the rig drift into the shore of uninhabited Sitkalidak Island, to maintain the safety of nine crewmembers aboard the tug Alert.

Capt. Paul Mehler, commander of the Coast Guard’s sector Anchorage, said a thorough investigation would be conducted and the report made public.

Sean Churchfield, operations manager for Royal Dutch Shell in Alaska, said during a Unified Command news conference on Jan. 1 that Shell would conduct its own internal investigation but would not say if that report would be made public.

The Kulluk’s problems are the latest of several major problems that have plagued Shell’s 2012 Arctic drilling season.

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