Backfire on Shell drill rig leads to response from fire department in Unalaska

Casey Grove

An engine on a Shell Oil drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, backfired Friday in Dutch Harbor, causing a short-lived fire in its smokestack, according to Shell and the local fire chief.

A witness at the port office called firefighters about 10:20 a.m. reporting black smoke coming from the Noble Discoverer, at the port but not tied up at dock, said Fire Chief Abner Hoage. As firefighters headed to the area, another call came in saying witnesses heard and felt a loud explosion, Hoage said. Personnel aboard the drill ship put out the fire without any help, he said.

"By the time we arrived, there was no smoke on the vessel," Hoage said. "You could see crews moving around onboard, but it seemed pretty calm at that point."

The Noble Discoverer is in Dutch Harbor, about 800 miles southwest of Anchorage, on its way to Seward after drilling the top portions of exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea this past summer and fall, Shell Alaska's spokesman Curtis Smith said.

"When we started the engines this morning in Dutch Harbor, we experienced a very loud backfire, followed by a small fire extinguished by the crew," Smith said. "The Discoverer was never in danger, nor was the crew."

Smith said reports from Shell's drilling superintendent indicated the 571-foot drill ship was not damaged in the incident and that it will again be on its way to Seward "in the very near future." Smith said he thought some residents and news media overreacted to the noise and smoke.

"It's not uncommon for a combustion engine to occasionally backfire," he said. "However spectacular and loud a backfire can be, it's not an indication of the health of the engine, nor was there any injury to personnel."

Controversy among environmental groups about Shell's work in the Arctic drew attention to the Noble Discoverer long before it entered Alaska waters.

Greenpeace activists boarded the Discoverer in February while it was in New Zealand, causing a federal judge to order the environmental group to stay away from it.

In July, while in Dutch Harbor, the ship drifted "very near" land when its anchor slipped in windy weather, Shell said. Witnesses told the Daily News the drill ship's stern struck rocks but Shell denied that.