Problems continue for Shell's offshore oil containment barge

Booms surrounds vessel to capture minor discharges, protect water.

Associated PressAugust 16, 2012 

The Arctic Challenger, a containment vessel designed to capture oil spilled during drilling, is being retrofitted in Bellingham, Wash., in this photo taken Wednesday, Aug, 15, 2012. The containment boom and support vessel are in place as precautionary measures.

RUSS KENDALL / BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- Minor oil spills have plagued construction of an oil spill containment barge Shell Oil is waiting for to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska.

Hydraulic systems leaked on July 24, Aug. 4 and Aug. 6, each releasing about a quart of oil into Whatcom Waterway, the Washington state Ecology Department said. The department sent a notice of violation to Superior Energy Services, which is building the Arctic Challenger, The Bellingham Herald reported Thursday.

"They're a quart at a time, but every time there's a spill there's more environmental damage," ecology department spokeswoman Katie Skipper said.

The department also is investigating a spill of less than 20 gallons of diesel fuel from a small work boat into the waterway. All of the spills were held within a containment boom.

Crews may be working in haste to finish the barge so Shell can start drilling, the spokeswoman said.

"We know they're going fast, but they have to be responsible for protecting the water and following our laws," Skipper said.

The department is requiring Superior to plug deck drains, set up barriers to catch spray from hydraulics, and lock equipment so it is only running when supervised. Superior is following the steps.

"Superior takes spills seriously, and it's a corporate priority to ensure that we complete the project safely, efficiently and without harm to the environment," said spokesman Greg Rosenstein.

The delay with the barge has set back Shell Oil's plan to drill in the short season when Arctic water is ice-free.

Drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas will depend on obtaining Coast Guard certification for the spill response vessel in the next 10 to 20 days, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday during a stop in Anchorage.

The Arctic Challenger will be the fourth-line of defense against a spill, along with blowout preventers, shear rams and a capping stack, said Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith. The barge will carry a dome-shaped containment system that could be lowered onto a leaking well to funnel oil and gas to a barge.

Shell's goal remains to complete as many wells as possible this year, Smith said. The company also will pursue top holes and mud-line cellars, holes in the sea floor for wellhead equipment such as blowout preventers, that would put the company ahead for 2013 drilling, Smith said.

Shell has made no request to modify its original 2012 drilling proposal, Smith said, but is considering it. Shell has invested more than $4 billion in Arctic offshore drilling.

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