As rough seas continued to hammer Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship that ran aground in Alaska on New Year's Eve, the company and federal and state officials had few new details to offer at an Anchorage press conference Tuesday afternoon.
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler said the Kulluk appears sound as of Tuesday afternoon, with no breach of hull and no discharge of fuel, lubricant or hydraulic fluid apparent from Coast Guard over-flights.
Mehler told reporters that the Kulluk grounding is now considered a salvage operation.
Over 500 people are now involved with the operations, according to officials with the Unified Command center. Of that, 250 are stationed in an Anchorage hotel ballroom, monitoring operations from afar.
Mehler described the operation as dynamic, thanks to challenging weather battering the area. Multiple Coast Guard aircraft have been deployed to the area, one of which is carrying a salvage crew the Coast Guard hopes to deploy on the Kulluk as soon weather allows. Although the Kulluk is stable, it is moving back and forth as strong seas batter the drilling rig.
"It's aground; it's swaying, but it's not moving," he said.
Steve Russell, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's on-scene coordinator, added that while the Kulluk is stable, it still poses a serious environmental threat.
Russell said the customized response plans are being drafted. However, what those plans could be are unclear. After delivering brief statements, officials took few questions from gathered members of the press, citing a need to return to the recovery effort. Another press conference is being planned for this evening, at which officials said more time will be given for questions.
And questions are mounting over whether Shell -- a Netherlands-based oil and gas giant -- cut corners as it has pursued an ambitious, multibillion-dollar drilling program in Alaska's far northern waters over the past seven years.
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Environmental and Alaska Native groups concerned with Shell's offshore drilling program in Alaska's Arctic hit the streets of Alaska's largest city at Noon on Monday to protest, in their words, "Shell's risky behavior in Alaska waters."
The Kulluk -- a $290 million offshore oil rig operated as part of Shell's Arctic drilling efforts in summer -- washed up shortly before 9 p.m. at Ocean Bay on Sitkalidak Island, located close to Kodiak Island's southeast shore. On Tuesday, weather was still rough in the Gulf of Alaska. Winds were blowing steady at 17 miles per hour at the site of the grounded Kulluk, according to Coast Guard Petty Officer Seth Johnson.
Johnson said gusts in the area have been up to 37 miles per hour. The National Weather Service reports seas in the area of being up to 30 feet high, though they're expected to drop down to 22 feet by Tuesday afternoon.
The trouble started late Monday afternoon when a Shell tugboat -- one of two vessels pulling the Kulluk -- lost a line to the drilling rig. The second tug, the Alert, struggled to continue towing the Kulluk due to "severe engine problems." The Alert's crew was ordered to separate from the rig at 8:10 p.m. "to maintain the safety of the nine crewmembers aboard the vessel," according to state environmental regulators and the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Kulluk is loaded with 143,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid, according to Mehler. An early report from unified command estimated 150,000 gallons of diesel and the same amount of other oily fluids. A Coast Guard helicopter crew assessed the situation late Monday, finding the Kulluk grounded on a rocky bottom about 500 feet from the shore. The crew found no visible sign of an oil spill or sheen, according to state regulators early Tuesday.
As Coast Guard responders were scrambling to the scene on New Year's Eve, officials told reporters an investigation will be launched into the failures that led to the Kulluk's demise.
"The extreme weather conditions and high seas continue to be a challenge," said Susan Childs, the incident commander for Shell, in a statement. "Our priority right now is maintaining the safety of our response personnel and evaluating next steps." About some 250 people are involved in responding to the incident, she added.
It's been a tumultuous several days for the Kulluk, which saw itself disconnected from the tug boats charged with moving the vessel from Alaska to the Lower 48 for the winter. Earlier this year, the Kulluk performed exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea for Shell.
For Shell, which has invested more than $4.5 billion to drill for oil and gas in Alaska's Arctic, the latest troubles raise questions about how prepared the company -- as well as the Coast Guard -- are for problems in the far north.
The Kulluk and its tug weren't operating above the Arctic Circle when the problems started late last week. And the Coast Guard's Alaska headquarters at Kodiak are located relatively nearby the grounded Kulluk, making response efforts easier than in the Arctic, where the agency has no base. That has some Alaskans wondering what would happen if similar troubles ever occur in the much more remote and hostile Arctic Ocean.
"The implications of this very troubling incident are clear -- Shell and its contractors are no match for Alaska's weather and sea conditions either during drilling operations or during transit," said Lois Epstein, the Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society, late Monday in a statement. "Shell's costly drilling experiment in the Arctic Ocean needs to be stopped by the federal government or by Shell itself, given the unacceptably high risks it poses to both humans and the environment."
As the Kulluk headed to the Lower 48 on Thursday, the tow shackle failed between the drilling rig and its tug -- Shell's Aiviq. A second towline was attached, but later the engines on the Aiviq failed, leaving the two vessels adrift at sea. The 266-foot diameter Kulluk has no propulsion system of its own.
Another ship, the Coast Guard's 282-foot cutter Alex Haley, was dispatched to reconnect the towline. However, 35-foot seas and 40-mph winds, coupled with the size of the vessels, caused the towline to disconnect, and the Haley retreated to Kodiak for repairs. On Sunday, the Kulluk's 18-person crew was evacuated.
Then, after dispatching yet another ship -- the Prince William Sound-based Alert tug -- the Kulluk was reconnected to its tow vessels early Monday. Later Monday morning, the Aiviq tug also re-established its connection to the Kulluk about 19 miles southeast of Kodiak Island, but lost its link later in the day.
By Monday evening, the Coast Guard was planning to tow the Kulluk to safe harbor at Port Hobron on the southeast side of Kodiak Island, as well as deploy several technicians on board the Kulluk to inspect the tow lines on the rig.
As the weather worsened, the Alert tug's crew, which was struggling to tow the Kulluk on its own, was order to separate from the rig. By 9 p.m., the Kulluk was sitting in the surf at rocky Ocean Bay, its draft having run aground.
More bad weather on the way
Seas are expected to be up to 33 feet by Tuesday, with the potential for 40-foot waves as a large storm system delivers moisture from as far south as California. Satellite imagery shows the bulk of the storm headed right for Kodiak.
"They're in the bulls-eye of the whole thing," said National Weather Service Meteorologist Dan Peterson, who said the weather service is updating the unified command center hourly.
Shell's drilling fleet has been plagued with a string of delays and problems this summer, and the engine failures aboard the Aiviq came just one day after revelations that the company's massive drillship, Noble Discoverer, was delayed for several weeks in Seward after being ordered to stay put for repairs to safety and pollution prevention systems.
Ben Anderson and Tony Hopfinger contributed to this report. Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com .