No sign that grounded Arctic drill ship hull is breached

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2013, 3:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2013, 4:59pm

Crews aboard two aircraft flew over an oil drilling ship on Tuesday that went aground in a severe Alaska storm and saw no sign that the vessel was leaking fuel or that its hull had been breached.

The Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig used this summer in the Arctic was aground off a small island near Kodiak Island, where the ship, the Kulluk, appeared stable, said federal on-scene response coordinator Captain Paul Mehler.

“There is no sign of a release of any product,” Mehler said during a news conference at unified command centre at an Anchorage hotel.

When the storm eases and weather permits, the plan is to get marine experts onboard the Kulluk to take photos and videos, and then come up with a more complete salvage plan.

The rig ran aground on Monday on a sand and gravel shore off an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska.

Mehler said the Kulluk is carrying about 541,000 litres of diesel and about 45,000 litres of lube oil and hydraulic fluid.

A Coast Guard C-130 plane and a helicopter were used to fly over the grounded vessel on Tuesday morning. The severe weather did not permit putting the marine experts on board the drilling rig, which is near shore and being pounded by stormy seas.

Mehler said there was a team of about 500 people working on a response to the situation “with many more coming”.

The goal remains to get salvagers aboard the Kulluk and the ship refloated, Mehler said.

A Shell official said the drilling rig was built with a double-sided hull of reinforced steel that is 7.5 centimeters thick. It recently had undergone US$292 million in improvements before being put into service for a short time this past summer in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s north coast.

Stormy weather eased on Tuesday with waves 7.5 to 9 metres and winds reduced to about 56km/h. Winds were 113km/h and waves had reached 15 metres overnight, the National Weather Service said.

The drilling rig’s difficulties go back to Thursday when it separated from a towing vessel south of Kodiak Island as it was being towed to Seattle for maintenance. The rig grounded on Monday night on a sand and gravel shore off the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska.

Sean Churchfield, operations manager for Shell Alaska, said once the situation is under control an investigation will be conducted into the cause. He did not know whether the findings would be made public. The Coast Guard said it also would be investigating and its findings would be public.

US Representative Ed Markey, who is the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, issued a statement on Tuesday expressing his concerns about the Kulluk situation.

“Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies,” Markey said. “Drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment.”

The Kulluk was being towed on Monday by a 110-metre anchor handler, the Aiviq, and a tugboat, the Alert. The vessels were moving north along Kodiak Island, trying to escape the worst of the storm. About 4.15pm, the drill ship separated from the Aiviq about 16 to 24 kilometres off shore. The tug boat crew guided the drill ship to a place where it would cause the least environmental damage and cut it loose. It grounded at about 9pm.