Port captain testifies in Shell rig grounding


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ANCHORAGE (AP) — The Coast Guard captain for the port for western Alaska testified Wednesday that conversations with representatives of Royal Dutch Shell PLC and its contractors gave him confidence that the companies could successfully tow a circular drill rig through Gulf of Alaska waters to Seattle.

However, the Kulluk on Dec. 31 ran aground off a remote Alaska island, and in hindsight, Capt. Paul Mahler said, he wished he had ordered inspections of the drill rig's tow ship.

"It would be great to have this crystal ball," he said. "But I did inspections on the Kulluk, but we did not do inspections on the Aiviq. So if I could go back and do it over, if I had known where we were going, I would have ordered an inspection on the Aiviq, also."

Mahler testified before a Coast Guard investigation panel assembled to review what led to the grounding. The vessels first parted Dec. 27 in swells estimated at 20 feet. The Aiviq, a 360-foot anchor handler built to tow the Kulluk, lost power to all four main engines a day later.

Repairs restored power, but an emergency tow line and other lines rigged to the 266-foot diameter barge, which has a funnel-shaped hull and a 160-foot derrick rising from its center, could not be maintained.

More than 1,400 people took part in the response. The drill rig is now in Singapore for repairs, and Shell was forced to cancel plans for 2013 Arctic offshore drilling.

The investigation has focused in part on a missing shackle, a U-shaped piece of metal used to make a connection between lines and metal parts. It was the only part of the main tow line not recovered.

The Aiviq towed the Kulluk north from Seattle last summer and it drilled in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast. The Aiviq in November towed the Kulluk south to Dutch Harbor, a major U.S. fishing port in the Aleutian Islands.

Towing occurs every minute of every day, Mahler said, and the Coast Guard routinely inspects neither tow plans nor the vessels involved.

He had questions about the Kulluk, he said, because it was carrying fuel and 80 or more crew members on the leg from the Beaufort Sea to Dutch Harbor. His concerns about fuel, he said, were allayed by the explanation that it was on board to keep the floating drill rig stable. Shell and contractor Noble at Dutch Harbor reduced the crew on board to 18 for the trip to Seattle.

Mahler said conversations with Shell gave him confidence in the towing operation.

"I was confident that industry, in this case, Shell, had put the efforts in to ensure that they were going to do this operation safe," he said. Asked what could have been done differently, Mahler said his agency should have asked more questions of crews, not just the industry leadership.

When the main tow line broke, Mahler switched hats to incident commander overseeing recovery of the drill rig. The overriding concern, he said, was safety of personnel and protecting the environment.

The decision to evacuate the 18 people on the Kulluk was made Dec. 28 and two helicopter crews a day later lifted workers off in groups of six. There were multiple times in the response when heroic actions took place, Mahler said.

"This was one of them."

Another was Dec. 31 when four salvors were lowered back onto the Kulluk to determine which of the lines trailing off the drill rig might be secure enough for towing.

"We had to know which one to grab onto," he said. However, the salvors realized they could not safely walk around the deck of the heaving vessel and were lifted off.

The Aiviq lost the emergency tow line a final time Dec. 31, and with the barge pulling the tug Alert toward Kodiak Island in swells up to 40 feet, the decision was made to cut the drill rig loose. There was a feeling of failure, Mahler said, but he reminded people in the unified command room that multiple agencies and companies had made heroic efforts and no lives were lost.

"We did everything we could and I was pretty darn proud of the response," he said.

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