Inspection teams find some damage on grounded Shell rig, but no spill

Shell and U.S. Coast Guard officials are providing few details so far yet on how they might salvage Shell’s drill vessel Kulluk from the shore of a small island off Kodiak’s south coast, but said in a Thursday briefing that some damage to the vessel topside and electrical systems has been found by a team landed on the rig.

The salvage plan is still under development, they said.

The vessel remains upright and shows no sign of movement since grounding the night of Dec. 31, Sean Churchfield, Shell’s Alaska operations manager, said at a briefing. Churchfield said there is no observed oil sheen or sign of leakage from fuel tanks on the vessel since the grounding almost four days ago.

The salvage team landed on the vessel also found some water damage to the interior due to watertight doors that were breached, he said.

The Kulluk was being towed from Dutch Harbor, Alaska to the Pacific Northwest for winter maintenance after drilling an exploration well for Shell in the Alaska Beaufort Sea.

It was separated from towlines to tugs in severe weather over the weekend and grounded late Monday.

Coast Guard Captain Paul Mehler said at the briefing that the Coast Guard has dispatched a marine casualty team of investigators from New Orleans. Results of the investigation will be made public, he said. Churchfield said Shell is cooperating with the Coast Guard investigation.

Mehler, federal on-scene coordinator for the incident, said his top priority is the safety of people deployed in response to the incident in the air and water. The Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley is at the scene and is acting as the on-scene command center, he said.

About 600 people are engaged in the response so far, he said. So far there have been no serious injuries despite severe weather.

Shell and Coast Guard officials said the salvage teams are still developing a strategy for the Kulluk and would give no details at the briefing. “It is difficult to say how long this will take, and plans may have to change with circumstances,” Churchfield said.

“We’re pleased with our progress so far, but there is a lot of work to be done,” he said.

Tommy Travis, U.S. operations vice president for Noble Drilling, the contract drilling operator, said he has not yet determined why the watertight doors breached or whether the Kulluk’s crew were able to close all of them before being evacuated by helicopter last Saturday.

“We have not yet interviewed all of the crew,” he said.

The Kulluk’s problems began last Friday when the towline connecting the rig to the Shell-contracted vessel towing it separated in rough weather. At almost the same time all four engines on the tow vessel Alviq quit, a failure that may have been caused by contaminated fuel according to sources familiar with the incident.

The engines were restarted and the tow reattached only to be separated again several times, even with more tugs brought to the scene and repeated attaching of towlines.

As the weather worsened Sunday and Monday the towline from the tug Alert, which was also having engine problems, was ordered disconnected as the Kulluk drifted toward shore in high wind.

The Kulluk grounded about 500 feet offshore a gravel and sand beach on Sitkalidak Island about 8 p.m. Monday night.

01/03/2013 - 12:04pm