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Kulluk grounding: Shell Oil testimony opens Coast Guard hearing in Anchorage

Suzanna Caldwell
The Coast Guard is in the process of determining what went wrong, when, and ultimately who is responsible for the New Year's Eve mishap when the Kulluk ran aground near Kodiak. Pool Photographer / Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News

A subdued Anchorage Assembly chambers turned into a federal courtroom of sorts Monday as members of the U.S. Coast Guard questioned Royal Dutch Shell officials over the grounding of one of its prized Arctic drilling vessels in stormy Gulf of Alaska winter weather.

The Coast Guard's formal marine casualty investigation hearings began by recounting events leading to the New Year's Eve grounding of the Kulluk conical drilling unit off the shores of Sitkalidak Island, near Kodiak Island.

The Coast Guard investigation – led by Cmdr. Joshua McTaggart of the Coast Guard Investigations National Center of Expertise -- is in the process of determining what went wrong, when, and ultimately, who is responsible for the New Year's Eve grounding of the Kulluk, a centerpiece of Shell's Arctic drilling operations.

In the sparsely filled room, oil company executives, Coast Guard officers and lawyers mingled between short breaks during the proceedings. Lawyers were especially prominent; the entire right side of Assembly chambers filled with about a dozen lawyers who represented everyone involved, from the captains of individual ships to tugboat builders and multinational oil companies. 

Shell Alaska's emergency response team leader, Norman "Buddy" Custard, was the first to testify, detailing what Shell knew, when it knew and how the company responded. His testimony, along with others, is the beginnings of putting together a complete picture of what exactly happened to the Kulluk less than a week after leaving Dutch Harbor, en-route to Seattle for off-season maintenance. The Kulluk and its tug, the Aiviq, encountered a devastating winter storm that set off a series of reactions that culminated in the rig's grounding.

A response to a vessel in crisis was something Shell was prepared for, Custard told investigators, with almost weekly drills done by the company to prepare for challenging scenarios. Just a few months before the grounding, the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Engineering asked for a surprise drill after a vicious wind storm that left much of Anchorage without power. BSEE offered to move the date to give Shell more time prepare, but the company complied.

Still, Custard said he knew early on the Kulluk incident, especially when tow lines began to snap in the under increased pressure from the intense storm, was going to be far more than a drill.

"I recognized this incident was going to take numerous days, if not weeks, to manage," he said.

Details emerge

Throughout the proceedings, it was mostly McTaggart asking questions, putting together the details of the events leading up to the grounding of the Kulluk, and how Shell responded. Problems began when the Aiviq – the tug pulling the 300-foot wide conical drilling unit, which has no propulsion system of its own – lost its tow connection with Kulluk on Dec. 27.

Custard, a 30-year veteran of the Coast Guard who began working for Shell in June 2012, quickly made sure Shell had a team in place to respond to the developing crisis. With 20-foot seas and high winds, the Aiviq went about preparing to reconnect its emergency tow line, Custard said. Meanwhile, he and his colleagues in Anchorage worked to formulate a possible evacuation plan for the 18-member crew aboard the Kulluk.

Shell quickly deployed two tugs in Seward, the Guardsman and Nanuq, and sent them toward the stranded Kulluk and Aiviq, hundreds of miles away. As they headed south, an emergency tow line between the Aiviq and the Kulluk was established.

With the situation stable for the moment, Custard still wanted the other ships deployed in case the situation worsened.

When Custard came to work the morning of Dec. 28, 2012, he learned the Aiviq had lost engine power, although a generator had been activated to help the vessel avoid drifting. By then, the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley had arrived on scene, though Custard was worried about the cutter's capabilities. After years with the Coast Guard, he had seen rescue missions foiled when lines from cutters became tangled with the fishing vessels they were trying to rescue.

That is why, he said, he kept the Guardsman and Nanuq en route. Seas were worsening, and though one engine on the Aiviq was repaired later in the day, three others were still not working.

On Dec. 28, with the Aiviq's engines failing, it was decided that Unified Command – a joint operation between Shell, the Coast Guard, Noble Drilling, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and other regional stakeholders – should be created.

Custard said there were numerous discussions about whether to keep the crew aboard the Kulluk or evacuate them. At one point, a survival anchor was lowered -- though to keep that in place, a crew of between six and 12 would have to remain on the ship. Custard said he eventually decided it was an all-or-nothing deal in getting the crew off, and opted to have all 18 removed from the vessel Saturday night.

Even with small let-ups in the weather, Custard said the crew was growing tired, a worrisome situation for rescuers. “The situation was getting very uncomfortable for those on the Kulluk,” he said. “(The vessel) was moving very lively.”

'A very precarious line'

With the crew off the Kulluk and parts flown in to fix the Aiviq's engines, the Aiviq and the Nanuq were able to secure tow lines to the Kulluk. Incident command looked to bring the Kulluk into safe harbor.

But those lines would not last, as weather in the area only deteriorated. Both tow lines would come undone Sunday, Dec. 30. While the Alert, a tug operated by Crowley Maritime Corp., was able to reconnect using the Aiviq's emergency tow line, the tug was unable to hold on to the Kulluk in the surging seas and high winds. Custard said he was told that the Alert's engines had lost propulsion, though that was quickly corrected; the engines had only sent out a warning saying they were being taxed.

Still, he said the incident proved to be a trigger point. Only miles from shore, he made the decision to have the Alert release the Kulluk.

“In my eyes, we were walking a very precarious line,” Custard said. “Here we have a tug vessel pushing as hard as they can, and the Kulluk is dragging it toward the beach.

“We don't need to have another incident compounding on what we already have.”

Only three miles from Sitkalidak Island, the Alert released the Kulluk on orders from Custard. A few hours later -- only hours before the New Year -- the Kulluk ran aground.

Making recommendations

The findings of the Coast Guard report, along with any recommendations, will be forwarded to Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo. The admiral will take the report under consideration and determine whether additional measures are required to prevent marine casualties similar to the Kulluk. Both the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the BSEE  have members on the casualty hearing board as well, and will offer their own input and recommendations if necessary.

But in some ways, change has already come. Shell suspended its 2013 drilling season following the incidents and problems with the Noble Discoverer drill ship, considered a counterpart to the Kulluk. Under the program's oil spill response plan, one ship cannot drill without the other. Both ships are currently in Asia undergoing repairs.

The Kulluk hearings continue through May 31. On Tuesday, members of the Offshore Rig Mover's International will testify, with continuing testimony from Custard.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com