After days of stalled attempts and little movement, plans for getting the grounded Kulluk drilling rig removed from beach it rests on are starting to take shape.
The vessel is "sound and fit to tow," Sean Churchfield, operations manager and incident commander for Royal Dutch Shell, told reporters at a press briefing Saturday afternoon. In the coming days, Unified Command -- the joint operation consisting of members of Shell, Noble Drilling Corp., U.S. Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and Kodiak stakeholders -- will attempt to tow the vessel 30 miles from its current grounding on Sitkalidak Island to refuge in Kiliuda Bay.
The Aiviq -- the Shell-owned tug in charge of moving the Kulluk across the Gulf of Alaska -- will serve as the main tow to Kiliuda Bay.
Churchfield said Unified Command has been working with the tug's builder, Edison Chouest Offshore, to "mitigate any potential future failures." He still did not know why the Aiviq's engines had failed in the first place, saying the investigation into why had not been completed.
When exactly the Aiviq will make the tow is still unclear. It depends on weather, tides and dispatching the proper resources, according to U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler, federal on-scene coordinator. Despite repeated questions from reporters, there was no solid time-table -- nor specifics on just what exactly conditions crew would need to pull the Kulluk from the beach.
"A timeline is still difficult to nail down," he said.
Mehler noted there was a sense of urgency in trying to remove the vessel as soon as possible, a sentiment shared by others involved in the operation.
"I have high hopes that by Monday the Kulluk will be gone," said Colleen McCarthy, a Shell employee and member of Unified Command. "But I can't guarantee."
On Saturday, Unified Command announced the path the Kulluk would take. Once (and if) responders can safely pull the Kulluk from the rocky beach it rests on, the conical drilling rig -- which does not have its own propulsion system -- will begin a 30-mile tow from its location on the north edge of Ocean Bay, up around the northwestern tip of Sitkalidak Island in Kiliuda Bay. Unified Command received a permit from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to move the Kulluk Friday night.
Steve Russell, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on-scene coordinator, said Kiliuda Bay was one of seven nearby areas of refuge.
Once there, it will undergo extensive inspection and evaluations by Shell, Noble and DEC. Churchfield couldn't say what would happen to the Kulluk from there, only that "depending what comes out of that assessment, then the next stage of the plan will evolve."
Despite more than a dozen ships and multiple aircrafts on scene, "important pieces" of the operation are still waiting to be delivered. Mehler said those include a generator -- all of the Kulluk's generators were damaged in the storm -- and an expandable tow connection.
"The sense of urgency is to do this right," Mehler said. "The urgency has been in place that we have all the steps, all the equipment and all the contingencies in place and that we've done all the 'what-ifs.'"
The Kulluk remains upright and stable according to Unified Command. Russell said there is still no evidence of any oil sheen in the area, and there is no indication the fuel tanks have been breached. The vessel is carrying up to 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel and another 12,000 of other petroleum-based products.
There is no indication of a leak, but booms have been deployed as a precaution in the area, with special attention toward salmon streams in the area.
While there has been some damage to upper areas of the Kulluk due to wave damage, officials have said there is no indication the hull has been breached. But it's unclear whether the outer-steel hull – which is between 1 and one-quarter to 1 and one-half inch thick -- will be able to stand being towed off the rocky bottom of Ocean Bay.
"We do not see that as a threat or a likely outcome," Churchfield said.
Russell noted that DEC will be doing an evaluation of the area after the Kulluk is moved, looking for any oil sheen or other problems that might come to light when the vessel is moved.
"We certainly would re-evaluate taking a leaking vessel out there," Russell said.
Kiliuda Bay and weather
Rumors started circulating Friday that the Kulluk could be headed for Kiliuda Bay. Larry Carroll owns Kodiak Adventures Lodge, the only lodge in Kiliuda Bay, and on Saturday said the bay is often used as refuge by fishermen. The sharp "S-turn" shape of the bay shields it from harsh Gulf of Alaska storms. However, despite the refuge, Carroll said the bay doesn't see a lot of traffic, even in the summer when he and his family operate fishing charters out of the lodge.
Weather in the area is expected to remain favorable with 34 mph winds and 9 foot seas. That should remain through Sunday night, when seas are expected to pick up to 17 feet.
High tide of over 8 feet is set for Sunday at 8 a.m, with a low tide at 3 p.m. The tides will be slightly more extreme going into the week, with highs over 9 feet starting Monday, with 2 foot negative tides starting Thursday. While Unified Command has said the tides factor into their decision making, they declined to elaborate on what sort of specific tides would be a help -- or a hindrance.
Jill Burke contributed reporting. Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com