Kulluk Dilemma Points Out Hazards to Alaska’s Oceans

By Margaret Bauman 

An environmental saga that began in late December when a tug
lost its towline to a $290 million drill rig in rough seas south of Kodiak
Island has raised new issues about the adequacy of these tugs to haul oil
tankers in heavy weather.

As of Jan. 6, the US Coast Guard, Alaska environmental
officials, and representatives of Royal Dutch Shell, owner of the 18,681-ton,
266-foot wide Kulluk, had determined that the vessel
grounded on a rocky area offshore of Sitkalidak Island remained stable and
upright, and fit to be towed, weather permitting.
Late on the evening of Jan.6 the Unified Command said theKulluk was
refloated. By 3 a.m. on Jan. 7, the Kulluk was in tow
by the tug Aiviq, traveling at 4.8 knots, and was 19 miles
from land, the Unified Command said.
Inspections of the vessel by the salvage team confirmed
there were no visible signs of a sheen, which would indicate leakage of any of
the 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel, plus another 12,000 gallons of other
petroleum products, including hydraulic fluid, on board.
Salvage inspectors who were airlifted to the drill rig said
there was superficial damage above the deck and that seawater had entered some
open hatches, and that water had knocked out regular and emergency generators
on board.
At a news conference Jan. 5, the last before the Fishermen’s
 publication deadline, US Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler III, the
federal on-scene coordinator, said safety of response personnel remained the
Unified Command’s top priority.
“The very nature of the recovery operations and the
difficult weather conditions must be managed without compromising safety,”
Mehler said. “Our timeline is still difficult to nail down, but we are
committed to seeing this response through to a safe conclusion. Understand that
as recovery operations develop, it may be necessary to alter our plans to
address new issues or concerns.”
Steve Russell, the state’s on-scene coordinator for the
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said the Kullukrecovery
operation did not pose an environmental threat that would preclude the opening
of the tanner crab fishery set to open in mid-January. The DEC is consulting
with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on a regular basis to monitor any
impact that the recovery operation might have on the tanner crab fishery and
other commercial, subsistence and sport fisheries, he said.
Kodiak Island’s local on-scene coordinator, Duane Dvorak,
said that throughout the response, it has been important to Unified Command
that they consider environmental concerns and cultural sensitivity in the
recovery plan, to the greatest degree possible.
But Rick Steiner, an environmental consultant, and former
professor and marine conservation specialist with the University of Alaska,
said there was a much larger issue meriting citizen discussion: the adequacy of
tugs used currently in Prince William Sound, to tow not only the drill rig Kulluk,
but loaded oil tankers with tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil in heavy
weather, including emergency situations, such as that involving the Kulluk.
“We’ve been there,” said Steiner, who was there when the Exxon
 oil spill created an environmental disaster in Prince
William Sound on March 24, 1989. “We don’t want that again.”
“Alaskans need to use the Kulluk grounding
as an opportunity to reevaluate all emergency towing capacity for all Alaska
waters, including Prince William Sound, the Aleutians and the Arctic, because
obviously, Houston, we have a problem,” Steiner said. “We need to use this as
an opportunity to fix what is broken throughout the system.”
Steiner also noted that while Prince William Sound has tugs
in service, there are none available on short notice in the Aleutians or the
Arctic. “This is the time to look at all the emergency towing throughout
Alaska,” he said. “I think the Kulluk on the beach is
the best thing that’s happened to environmental safety in Alaska in years, if
it helps prevent Exxon Valdez Two.”
The Unified Command is keeping secretive the tow plan for
the Kulluk and what gear is aboard the Aiviq,
the tug assigned to tow the Kulluk 30 miles to shelter
at Kiliuda Bay, a cove about 43 miles southeast of the city of Kodiak, Steiner
Steiner said that the Unified Command had confirmed that the Aiviq does
not have onboard a Markey Asymmetric Render and Recovery towing winch, which
mariners consider to be the best available technology in a towing winch.
Steiner pointed to a report to the Prince William Sound
Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council in Anchorage, written by a prominent
Vancouver, British Columbia naval architect and marine engineering firm,
received in August of 2012.
The writers for Robert Allan Ltd. said that the vast
majority of operators agree that the electric-driven Markey Render-recover
winch is the best winch technology on the market today.
Robert Allan Ltd. was retained by the PWSRCAC to conduct an
investigation into the nature of the towing systems in use aboard the existing
escort tugboats in use within the Ship Escort response Vessel System in Valdez,
and to determine how those systems compare to what can be considered as the
current best available technology in escort towing systems worldwide.
Meanwhile Royal Dutch Shell PLC, working with the US Coast
Guard, state of Alaska and local officials, was making efforts to move the
grounded drill ship out of the stormy waters south of Kodiak as soon as
Sean Churchfield, incident commander for Shell, said during
the news conference on Jan. 5, that the exact timing of a potential towing
activity would depend on weather, tides and operational readiness. “Once
Unified Command confirms that the operation is safe and ready to move forward,
the recovery operation will begin,” he said.
The Aiviq, which has been assigned to tow
the Kulluk, is the same tug that lost its tow to the Kulluk in
December, in the midst of an effort to move the drill rig from Dutch Harbor to
Seattle for maintenance.
The tow began on Dec. 21, with the ice-class Aiviq beginning
what was anticipated as a three-to-four week trip hauling theKulluk to
On Dec. 27, a buckle on a towline between the Aiviq,
a 300-foot, $260 million vessel, and the Kulluk broke.
Then four re-attached lines between the Aiviq or other
vessels also broke in stormy seas.
By Dec. 28, the Aiviq had lost power
to all four of its engines about 50 miles southwest of Kodiak Island and the
Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley, which is based at Kodiak,
came to try and connect a second towline, but lines from the Alex
 got tangled in its port propeller and it was ordered back to
Kodiak for repairs.
Other vessels were dispatched to the scene, power was
restored to the Aiviq, but the Kulluk continued
to drift. On the night of Dec. 28, Shell asked the Coast Guard to evacuate the
18 crewmembers aboard the Kulluk because of the roll
and pitch of the rig. An initial attempt by Coast Guard helicopters to evacuate
the Kulluk crew failed because of 50 mile-an-hour winds
and 20-foot seas.
On Dec. 29, the Coast Guard was able to deliver needed
engine parts to the Aiviq via helicopter and also
evacuate all 18 Kullukcrewmembers. All four engines on the Aiviq were
restarted and the tug Nanuq, from Seward, had established a
tow line to theAiviq, which had a tow line to the Kulluk.
On Dec. 30 the towlines from the Aiviq and Nanuq to the
Kulluk separated in stormy seas, stormy weather continued and the drill rig was
drifting north from about 25 miles south of Kodiak Island.
On Dec. 31, the Kulluk was tethered
to the Aiviq and the Alert, another
tug from Prince William Sound, but in late afternoon the tow line from the Aiviq broke
and the Alert was having engine problems, so the Alert was
ordered to disconnect from the Kullukto avoid danger to nine
crewmen aboard the Alert. The drill rig, again adrift,
grounded that night on the northern end of Ocean Bay on the southeast side of
Sitkalidak Island, where it remained on Jan. 6, as efforts to tow it continued.
Officials with the US Coast Guard and Royal Dutch Shell both
said that in-depth investigations into the incident would be conducted. Plans
at present are for the US Coast Guard investigation report to be made public.
Royal Dutch Shell has so far declined to make public its investigation report.
No mention has been made of the extensive cost of the
grounding of the drill rig to date, although Shell has said it would cover