While Royal Dutch Shell's recovery effort on the once-beached Kulluk drilling rig proceeds quietly, the Environmental Protection Agency is sounding off.
Late Thursday, the EPA delivered two notices of violation to Shell for Clean Air Act permits that the company had received for Kulluk and its counterpart, the drillship Noble Discoverer.
A statement from the agency said based on the EPA's inspection of the Discoverer and Shell's self-reports of excess nitrogen oxides, the EPA determined that Shell had multiple permit violations for each ship during the 2012 drilling season.
According to the EPA statement, a notice of violation is a common first step once the agency has identified permit violations. Next steps can include a consent decree for penalties, orders to correct the violations and possible mitigation measures.
The EPA noted that notices do not preclude Shell from applying for future permits.
Shell Spokesman Curtis Smith said the company has worked diligently with the agency to come up with a comprehensive approach to meet air quality standards.
"We've taken tremendous steps to make sure our vessels have the best available air-quality-control technology in the world," he said. "We will continue work with the EPA to come up with emission levels that are realistic and achievable."
No one from the EPA was available for comment Thursday night.
The Kulluk and the Discoverer remain the centerpieces of Shell's Arctic drilling operations. The Discoverer remains docked in Seward, where it has been held up since the Coast Guard cited the 571-foot vessel with "serious" safety and pollution-prevention system problems last month. According to spill prevention plans filed with the federal bureau of safety and environmental enforcement, the drilling rigs cannot operate in the Arctic without each other.
Crews remain in Kiliuda Bay continuing assessment of the Kulluk, which was moved to the bay Monday. Remotely-operated vehicles began assessing the Kulluk's anchor and hull Thursday. According to Unified Command, the survey found the anchor is firmly embedded with the chain buried near the anchor, with no hard formations found in the surrounding area. The assessment of the vessel's hull continues.
Also on Thursday, Unified Command upped its initial estimates on the amount of diesel fuel four dislodged survival boats and one dislodged rescue boat carried -- from 275 to 316 gallons. So far, there has been no indication of any leak, though spill response resources are still on scene.
Unified Command, the joint operation that includes Shell, the U.S. Coast Guard, Noble Drilling Corp. and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, has begun to wind down slightly, at least in Anchorage. By Wednesday the command was no longer operating out of the downtown Marriott ballroom, and instead had moved to offices in the midtown Frontier Building. Less than 500 people are involved with operation now, according to Patty Richards with Unified Command, down from a high of 700.
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com