Coast Guard panel questions fuel, crew training and engine operations

The U.S. Coast Guard inquiry into the grounding of the Shell drillship Kulluk continued Friday, with questions on the overall management of the drillship and events that led up to the accident last Dec. 31.

On Thursday, the chief engineer of the Edison Chouest heavy tug Aiviq told the hearing panel that he believes fuel problems caused all four engines on the Aiviq to quit in the midst of the late December storm off Kodiak as the 365-foot Aiviq struggled to regain control of the Kulluk, which was adrift after towlines had broken.

The Kulluk, a conical drillship, eventually grounded Dec. 31 on a small island. It was refloated after several days and has since been transported to South Korea for repairs. Shell had been using the Kulluk in its Arctic offshore exploration.

The panel asked detailed questions Thursday to chief engineer Carl Broekhuis and Capt. Bobby Newill, the Aiviq’s third mate, who was in charge of the tow system in addition to other duties.

With Broekhuis, the panel asked detailed questions about possible water entering the fuel from tank vents on the vessel being submerged by waves, particularly in rough seas Dec. 27 when the Aiviq took severe rolls while maneuvering to reestablish tow lines on the drillship.

Broekhuis told the panel he had conducted extensive tests on the fuel after the accident to eliminate the possibility, in his mind, that it had been contaminated with water.

He was later informed there was an additive in the fuel when it was loaded at Dutch Harbor, the Aleutians port from which the Aiviq had left towing the Kulluk.

Broekhuis said he narrowed the questions down to the quality of the fuel by replacing the fuel injectors but “staying on same fuel tank, and the same thing happened” with the fuel injectors failing.

“It ruled out everything else–I believe it was the additive. I should have known it (the additive) was there,” he said.

Broekhuis said he had not been informed of the additive and he still does not know its identity. He also reported seeing a “green gunk” on the fuel injectors as they were being replaced.

“The additive could have been incompatible with the fuel, or not added right,” he said.

Edison Chouest is still investigating the issue internally, Broekhuis said.

“After the accident I received numerous emails from captains of fishing vessels operating out of Dutch Harbor complaining about problems with fuel,” Broekhuis told the inquiry.

Sources familiar with marine fuel distribution in Alaska, asking not to be identified, said the “green gunk” (there were other reports of its appearing as a “slime”) pointed to some sort of bacterial action in the fuel.

The panel did not ask the identity of the fuel supplier in Dutch Harbor, and Shell officials did not volunteer it. Major fuel suppliers in Diutch Harbor include Delta Western, Inc.; North Pacific Services, a subsidiary of Petro Star Inc., an Arctic Slope Regional Corp. company, and Aleutians Fuel Service, an affiliate of Offshore Systems Inc.

If even a small amount of water was present it could encourage bacterial growth. In very rough seas any accumulation of organic matter, or sludge, in the fuel tanks could be broken loose and mixed in the fuel, the sources said.

“Think of it like a big martini shaker,” one source said.

However, this might not fully explain how all of the Aiviq’s fuel injectors failed, and all four engines shut down, over a space of three to four hours late Dec. 27 and early Dec 28, so other factors were likely at work, the source said.

The hearing panel also focused questions to Newill on whether running the engines at 80 percent power was a risk. On Monday, Capt. Marc Dial, a towmaster on the Kulluk’s northbound voyage in mid-2012, told the panel he did not like to exceed 60 percent power on the engines. 

Newill said the 80 percent power levels were to be the top speed and that frequently the speed was below that. In fact, the Aiviq had slowed down due to large swells when the first towline broke, he said.

There are also questions on levels of training the officers and crews had received for received for the Aiviq, which was new and in its first year of operations, and with new-technology operating systems.

“The Ailviq is very sophisticated and complex, and it’s the first of its kind,” said Susan Dwarnick, with the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, a member of the hearing panel.

Newill told the panel Thursday he had been given no formal training on the new systems but there were orientations and “on the job training,” on new equipment.

Broekhuis, the chief engineer, said the engine systems were new and with no operating protocols as yet, but that he could apply “best engineering practices,” in troubleshooting problems.

However, as with any brand new piece of equipment, operating glitches were expected, and the vessel owner, Edison Chouest, was quick to take note of recommendations, he said.

Newill said the first break of the towline to the Kulluk was a complete surprise to the Aiviq crew because weather conditions were moderate, though there were large swells and the speed of the Aiviq had been slowed to about 2 knots.

The large seas did cause sudden peaks of tension on the tow array, however, to as much as 220 tons of stress, or twice as much as the normal average load, Newell said. However, that was well below the calculated breaking point of the shackle that failed, he said.

“I still don’t now why it failed. Everything we were doing that morning was well within normal ranges,” Newill said.

The Coast Guard hearings will continue through the week of May 27, concluding June 31.



05/24/2013 - 7:23am