A Coast Guard helicopter was expected to deliver a team of 12 salvage personnel to the Kulluk drilling rig to assess the rig for recovery operations, the Coast Guard-led United Command reported Friday.
Teams on aboard helicopters were scheduled to perform an overflight deck assessment to determine current conditions of the rig and to evaluate wildlife in the area, Unified Command said in a statement. Unified Command representatives were also scheduled to meet Friday with village leaders of the town of Old Harbor after a visit scheduled the day before was postponed due to weather conditions.
An inspection has confirmed the rig is stable and remains firmly grounded on the southeast shoreline of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska. The initial assessment by a five-member team confirmed there were no signs of low-sulfur diesel fuel or hydraulic fluid having leaked from the rig.
"Although we continue to see no signs of oil, there is still much work ahead for us to determine the Kulluk's condition," said Capt. Paul Mehler, the Coast Guard Federal On Scene Coordinator for the Kulluk response, at a Thursday news briefing in Kodiak, Alaska.
The rig grounded in an area of mud, sand and gravel on the uninhabited island Dec. 31 while being towed from Alaska to Seattle for repairs. The rig came loose Dec. 28 from the towing vessel MV Aiviq, and efforts to regain control of the rig were affected by rough seas and high waves.
The initial assessment conducted Jan. 3 by a five-person team found some wave damage to the vessel's topsides, but a number of water-tight hatches have been breached, causing water damage inside, and the team has secured some of the open hatches, said Sean Churchfield, incident commander and operators manager for Shell Alaska, at the news briefing.
The emergency and service generators have also been damaged, Churchfield said. The damage to the electrical systems means the salvage teams will have to plan around either bringing more generators in or working without power on the rig. An emergency towing system has been placed on the rig's deck. Specialized salvage equipment also has been ordered and is in route.
"I want to reiterate that there is no limited on resources, personnel or equipment, being deployed as part of the response and recovery activities," Churchfield commented.
Oil spill response equipment remains deployed, and staging areas are being established in Seward, Kodiak and Old Harbor. Vessel-based response equipment is on scene with additional assets en route, and additional overflights are being conducted to monitor the rig.
Mehler said it was difficult to estimate a timeline on the recovery operations, as difficult weather conditions must be managed without compromising safety. A safety zone will remain in place until recovery operations are completed and hazards to the public and vessels no longer exist. The Coast Guard also has staged multiple shore boats in Kodiak to assist in the response operations.
Investigators from the Coast Guard's Center of Excellence in New Orleans were en route to conduct the Coast Guard Marine Casualty Investigation, said Mehler, who noted that over 600 people have been involved in the recovery effort.
"The greatest worry I have is clearly safety," Mehler commented. "We have so many people involved in this response operation. We have air assets, we have float assets, we have people staging in different areas. It's maintaining that safety."
The fact that the operation has been ongoing for days in challenging situations with no serious injuries reported shows the priority.
The state of Alaska is working to ensure that response capabilities are in place to protect sensitive habitats in the area, said Steve Russell, state on-scene coordinator with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Task forces have been established, and response techniques are being developed and staged in Kodiak and elsewhere.
Since the Kulluk ran aground, the Unified Command – which consists of the Coast Guard, Shell, Noble, local residents and federal, state and local agencies in Alaska – has reached out to major stakeholders, sharing information and listening to community concerns. A benefit of the outreach has been the support of the residents of Kodiak Island, particularly those living in Old Harbor and Akiak. The Old Harbor Native Corporation endorsed Unified Command's plan to attempt to remove the rig from the shoreline, said Duane Dvorak, a member of the Unified Command representing Kodiak communities.
Based on feedback from local communities, Dvorak said that responders need to be sensitive to archaeological and cultural resources in the area, including culturally significant geographical places in the area.
"In addition, the culture of the community out there is very much subsistence-based. And so there's a lot of concern how this could disrupt that subsistence lifestyle."
The Kulluk is one of two rigs that Shell has been using for its exploration program in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas offshore Alaska. Shell has faced a number of challenges in its 2012 Alaska Arctic exploration program, from regulatory delays for the oil spill response vessel Arctic Challenger to the presence of ice that forced Shell to curtail its planned exploration program.
Shell pointed out in a statement that the rig's grounding is a maritime transit incident, not a drilling incident.
"Shell is working hard with the other parties in the U.S. Coast Guard-led Unified Command to ensure a safe outcome and to protect the maritime environment in the vicinity of the grounded vessel," the company said in a Jan. 3 statement.
The Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC), a group of U.S. House of Representatives formed in 2009 to advocate for clean energy and environmental protection policies, has requested the Coast Guard and U.S. Department of the Interior jointly investigate the grounding of the Kulluk.
"The recent grounding of Shell's Kulluk oil rig amplified the risks of drilling in the Arctic," SEEC members said in a statement. "This is the latest in a series of alarming blunders, including the near grounding of another of Shell's Arctic drilling rigs, the 47-year old Noble Discoverer, in Dutch Harbor and the failure of its blowout containment dome, the Arctic Challenger, in lake-like conditions. SEEC members believe these serious incidents warrant thorough investigation."
Environmental groups Greenpeace and Oceana have been critical of Shell's Alaska drilling plans.
"Shell has not been able to conduct any phase of its operations without substantial problems," said Ocean in a Jan. 1 statement. "From construction of its response barge to complying with air and water protections to transit, Shell's season has been plagued with problems and missteps, which culminated in this disaster."
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