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Shell denies witness claim that drilling rig drifted for 2 hours

Lisa Demer
The Noble Discoverer, a 571-foot drill ship, was towed away from land after drifting Saturday, July 14, 2012, near Dutch Harbor.
Photo by Kristjan Laxfoss
The Noble Discoverer, a 571-foot drill ship, was towed away from land after drifting Saturday, July 14, 2012, near Dutch Harbor.
Photo by Kristjan Laxfoss
The Noble Discoverer, a 571-foot drill ship, was towed away from land after drifting Saturday, July 14, 2012, near Dutch Harbor.
Photo by Kristjan Laxfoss
The Noble Discoverer, a 571-foot drill ship, was towed away from land after drifting Saturday, July 14, 2012, near Dutch Harbor.
Photo by Kristjan Laxfoss

For two hours before a big Shell drilling ship stopped near shore Saturday afternoon, a Dutch Harbor resident noticed it slowly moving in that direction, an observed time that contradicts with the much shorter period of uncontrolled drifting in Shell's account of the close call.

James Mason, a journalist who has lived in Dutch Harbor for a year and runs an online local news site, said he glanced at the Noble Discoverer out the window of his home a few times that afternoon and also was eyeing it as he tooled around town. He lives on Standard Oil hill overlooking the airport and Unalaska Bay, where the ship was moored.

He noticed it wasn't in the same spot and was coming closer to land as the day progressed. It was imperceptively slow, like an hour hand on a clock. The significance of the untethered ship's path didn't register until later that afternoon, when he was getting a double espresso at the coffee stand.

"That's when I noticed it had gone all the way to shore," Mason said. He drove quickly to the beach with his camera and says he was the first on the scene. Two pickup trucks loaded with Shell employees -- identifiable by their bright yellow jackets -- pulled up moments later, he said.

"It was stuck by then," Mason said.

His eyewitness version of events differs significantly from Shell Oil Co.'s assessment of what happened. Shell is investigating the incident with the ship's owner and operator, Noble Corp., but says so far, there is no evidence the ship grounded. Less than 30 minutes, not a full two hours, elapsed from the moment those on board noticed the ship had lost anchor to the time it was under tow back to deeper water, according to Shell.

"We dispute that 100 percent," Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said Monday night when told of Mason's first-hand account.

The Coast Guard also is investigating. Its inspectors were on board the ship Monday afternoon but as of early evening hadn't reported back any information, said Petty Officer Sara Francis, a Coast Guard spokeswoman based in Kodiak. High winds combined with a soft seabed may be factors in why the ship's anchor failed to hold it Saturday, she said.

No one with the Coast Guard marine safety detachment in Unalaska saw the ship drifting, she said. The inspectors normally aren't on duty on weekends and weren't in the office, she said.

"They didn't have eyes on it themselves," she said. She didn't know if there was any support for Mason's assertion that the ship dragged anchor for as long as two hours, but said the timeline will be part of the investigation.

In Shell's version of events, a second ship, the Harvey Gulf, had pulled up beside the Discoverer to load drilling equipment when the crew noticed the floating drilling rig had lost anchor, Smith said.

"Anchors don't subtly give way," he said. "They hold or they don't. We wonder why this one didn't."

Mason said 20 minutes passed between his arrival on the beach with his camera and when the Shell tugboat, the Lauren Foss, arrived. He based that on time stamps on his digital photos. Two other tugboats got there around the same time.

Shell told the Coast Guard the Discoverer was dragging anchor at 5:18 p.m., Francis said. By 5:40 p.m., the ship was under tow, according to what Shell told the Coast Guard, Francis said.

After the Lauren Foss pulled the Discoverer to deeper water Saturday evening, Shell sent down a remotely operated vehicle to check for damage and found none, Smith said. Not even the hull's algae or barnacles were scraped off, which would happen even in sand, he said. Divers arrived Sunday in Dutch Harbor for more checks but haven't gone into the water yet. Smith said Shell's internal safety rules require a break between flying and diving.

"We're as anxious to get divers under that hull as everybody, to confirm what we think we know: that the hull was not compromised in any way and that preparations for drilling can continue," he said.

The Coast Guard hasn't made a determination yet on whether the ship grounded, though officials have said that based on the information from Shell, it doesn't appear to have done so.

Mason said his big concern is not whether the ship grounded, but that it appeared to take so long for anyone on board to notice a problem.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

Photos: Shell rig drifts near Dutch Harbor
By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News