Over nine days of testimony that wrapped up last week in Anchorage, witnesses told a Coast Guard panel investigating the Dec. 31 grounding of a Shell drilling rig about equipment failures, fuel problems and human error during the troubled voyage and frantic but failed effort to save the Kulluk. Now it will be up to the Coast Guard panel to determine just what caused the Kulluk to crash onto the rocks south of Kodiak Island.
In the hearing, part of a broader formal marine casualty investigation, boat captains, Royal Dutch Shell executives, a Coast Guard officer and others involved in the troubled tow of the Kulluk added new dimension and detail, along with informed theories, to what's already known about the near-disaster. Some described how it could have been much worse.
While Coast Guard investigators and others on the panel had previously interviewed the witnesses, their hearing testimony provided a public accounting under oath. Cmdr. Joshua McTaggart of the Coast Guard Investigations National Center of Expertise in Louisiana is leading the investigation, which includes representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board and federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which regulates offshore drilling. McTaggart also said he draws on Coast Guard experts in towing, offshore drilling units and other specialties.
"This is a very large investigation. There are a lot of moving parts to it," McTaggart said after testimony ended one day.
Typically, an investigation involves a single vessel that ran aground, sank or suffered a mechanical failure at sea. But in the case of the Kulluk, there were many vessels, numerous broken tow lines and multiple layers of problems, all of which must be scrutinized.
"We are looking at planning. We are looking at the vessels themselves. We are looking at towing equipment. We are looking at everything that occurred that led up to the casualty," McTaggart said. Such formal Coast Guard investigations are rare, he said.
The Kulluk is a mobile drilling rig that can't propel itself. Shell contracted with Louisiana-based Edison Chouest Offshore to custom build a vessel to tow it, plant its anchors for drilling, run supplies and help in the event of an oil spill. That vessel, the Aiviq, successfully towed the Kulluk multiple times for the 2012 drilling season, including through a Chukchi Sea storm to the Beaufort Sea drilling site.
But in December, things turned.
THE RISK OF ALASKA
The Aiviq and the saucer-shaped, unwieldy Kulluk left Dutch Harbor Dec. 21 on what was supposed to be a weeks-long voyage to the Seattle area for major offseason maintenance. They had a four-day window of good weather, the Coast Guard panel was told, but had to make it across the Gulf of Alaska, notoriously rough in winter.
As seas grew rough, the Aiviq lost its tow connection, then, while on a weaker emergency tow line, temporarily lost all four of its main engines. No backup boat was nearby.
Panel members questioned witnesses about the high level of risk crossing the Gulf of Alaska in winter with a single tow vessel moving at a rowboat's pace of 4 mph. How could they possibly get out of the way of bad weather? They asked about the wear and tear on the gear during the storm on the earlier trip north. They questioned why the Kulluk was carrying a crew of 18, a crew the Coast Guard ultimately rescued by helicopter.
The NTSB's Barry Strauch -- a specialist in "human factors" -- pressed whether Shell had a plan for multiple bad things at once -- a storm, an engine failure and a broken tow line. Technically, all three didn't happen at once, John Kaighin, Shell's marine manager for Alaska, told him. But vessels can ride out bad weather or seek a safe harbor, he said.
Susan Dwarnick, the panel member from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, noted that a detailed risk assessment was done for towing the damaged Kulluk after it grounded. A similar document was never done for the December tow, she said.
Shell and others said they were always thinking of the risk. They spent months planning the initial tow in June and hired a range of consultants and contractors, including a tow master who rode on the Kulluk, a rig-move coordinator who checked things over, and a warranty surveyor, who inspected the equipment to make sure it matched Shell's tow plan. A number of them testified to the Coast Guard investigation panel.
Many of the crew aboard the Kulluk and Aiviq were from Outside. The Aiviq captain on the December voyage, Jon Skoglund, had never sailed in Alaska. But in his 18 years with Edison Chouest, he told the Coast Guard panel, he gained experience in northern waters and had towed a manned submarine in the North Atlantic for seven or eight years, he said.
SHACKLE IN A CRATE
This voyage was put together more quickly than the rest, witnesses said. Shell considered keeping the Kulluk in Dutch Harbor until the 2013 drilling season but the rig needed new cranes, Sean Churchfield, Shell's Alaska operations manager, told the panel.
"We couldn't sensibly do it in Alaska," he said.
Around Dec. 7, Shell made the decision to leave that month, weather permitting, Churchfield said.
The timing stemmed from concerns Shell had about the prospect of millions in state property taxes that could be assessed if the Kulluk were in Alaska at the first of the year, Churchfield told the panel.
But the decision to go in December put the Kulluk and Aiviq into a fierce storm.
The warranty surveyor for that tow, Anthony Flynn of GL Noble Denton, testified that he was contacted Dec. 14 about going to Dutch Harbor. He got there Dec. 19, and two days later issued a certificate of approval for the tow arrangement the same day the Kulluk and Aiviq pulled out.
On Dec. 27, with Aiviq third mate Bobby Newill on watch over the tow, giant swells made the vessels heave. The tow line came snapping back to the Aiviq deck. McTaggart, the lead investigator, asked Newill about numerous alarms warning of too much strain on the gear. Newill said he never saw or heard those. False alarms had been going off for an anchoring system that wasn't even in use, he said.
The crew pulled up the tow gear and discovered that a key connecting piece, a shackle, had somehow broken or come apart and disappeared into the Gulf. Coast Guard investigator Keith Fawcett questioned witnesses on whether a cotter pin designed to hold the shackle bolt in place could have twisted off. Maybe, he was told. McTaggart questioned Flynn on whether he was sure the cotter pin was inserted to begin with. Flynn said he was.
Bigger shackles than first planned were used, a change made while the Kulluk and Aiviq were still at dock in Seattle last year. They had a working load strength of 120 metric tons, compared to 85 tons in the original tow plan. Contractors found 120-ton-rated shackles in a crate on the dock in Seattle where Shell and Chouest had gear. They were marked with their size but didn't have the required certification, William Hebert, the rig move coordinator with Delmar, a Louisiana offshore oil-field services contractor, told the panel.
When Flynn asked to see the shackle documentation in Dutch Harbor, he was shown certification for the smaller shackles and thought that was what was being used, he told the panel. Shell never updated its tow plans to reflect the bigger shackles, witnesses told the panel.
Skoglund, the Aiviq captain, said he wondered if the failed shackle suffered from a manufacturer's defect.
Shell tested an identical tow setup after the grounding and found that a weaker wire connected to the shackle broke first as expected, Skoglund said.
The answer may never emerge. The shackle is lost forever at sea.
THE QUESTION OF FUEL
Within hours of that first tow connection failing, with the storm building, the Aiviq lost each of its four engines one after the next. Carl Broekhuis, the Aiviq's chief engineer on the troubled voyage, told the panel the engine fuel injectors eventually failed. After a replacement injector also failed, he suspected a fuel problem and switched over to the one tank that he knew had good diesel fuel. He checked a water removal filter.
"I did find this jelly-like stuff, I guess you could say. That was something new," Broekhuis testified, describing the substance as slime. "I've been doing this a long time. I've seen injectors fail by water. You might lose one. I've never lost 20." Or, in the case of the Aiviq, dozens of them.
He said he suspected a diesel-fuel additive might have caused a reaction. It would have been introduced into the fuel somewhere along the supply chain, before the Aiviq fueled up with 440,000 gallons in Dutch Harbor, he said.
But perhaps the problem was the opposite. Fawcett, the Coast Guard investigator, asked Skoglund whether his crew added a biocide agent to prevent algae and filter-clogging slime that can grow in diesel fuel. They didn't, the skipper said.
The Coast Guard, Shell and Edison Chouest all are testing the fuel.
Fawcett also asked Broekhuis about the possibility of water getting into the fuel through vents that became submerged during the earlier rough tow through the Chukchi Sea. That shouldn't happen, Broekhuis said. Nevertheless, Edison Chouest has since raised the vents, Broekhuis told the Coast Guard panel.
COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE
For all that went wrong, in some ways Shell and its contractors were lucky. At one point, Noble Drilling Corp. crew members riding on the Kulluk mistakenly dropped its anchor at a point it was connected to the disabled Aiviq, which was connected to a tug boat that came to help, the Guardsman. The anchor didn't catch, but if it had, the vessels could have been jerked into each other or the Kulluk, Noble rig manager Todd Case told the panel.
There were other miscommunications. Skoglund testified that he mistakenly thought the Aiviq's engines failed because of water in the fuel and relayed that bad information over the radio.
On Dec. 31, just hours before the grounding, engine alarms went off on the Alert, the final tug boat with a makeshift tow line connected to the drifting Kulluk. At that point, the Alert was running at full engine power and the alarm meant its engine limits were exceeded, its captain, Rodney Layton, told the panel.
Back in Anchorage, at the Coast Guard-Shell emergency command center, that alarm somehow was translated as another vessel with engine failure, which Layton said was not true.
The Alert eventually was ordered to cut its tow line. Abandoned and untethered, the Kulluk grounded on the rocks near Sitkalidak Island off Kodiak about 9 p.m. Dec. 31.
As the hearing wrapped up, McTaggart asked the Aiviq's captain to address whether Gulf of Mexico-trained crews were equipped for the Gulf of Alaska.
"Is it exactly the same? No. Are both places challenging? Yes," Skoglund said, asking and answering his own questions. "Do I think the talent that was brought up from the Gulf of Mexico, do I think it helped us on the Aiviq? Absolutely."
Gary Chouest, whose family owns the Aiviq and Edison Chouest Offshore, came from Louisiana for the hearing. During a break one day, he said he hasn't lost confidence in the vessel's ability to tow the Kulluk.
Except for a few pulled muscles, no one was hurt in the Kulluk crisis and only a small amount of diesel fuel from life boats spilled, witnesses said.
McTaggart's report is due July 5. He can recommend changes in procedures or equipment to prevent such mishaps, and recommend actions against seamen with Coast Guard licenses.
His report must go up the Coast Guard chain to the commandant in Washington, D.C., before it can be released publicly.
Before the grounding, Shell had invested nearly $5 billion in its effort to drill offshore in the Alaska Arctic. But the company only was able to drill two partial wells last year because its oil-spill containment equipment failed tests.
Shell has said it decided not to drill offshore in the Alaska Arctic this year but intends to return eventually.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.