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
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
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.