Damaged rig will move to Kodiak's Kiliuda Bay. But when?

Suzanna Caldwell
The anchor-handling vessel, the Alert, tows the drilling unit Kulluk to a safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay, Alaska on Jan. 7, 2013. Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.
US Coast Guard photo
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
The Kulluk drill rig near Sitkalidak Island off Kodiak
USCG photo
The Kulluk drill rig off Kodiak Island on Jan. 2, 2013
USCG photo
Shell Oil's drill rig Kulluk, grounded off Kodiak Island by an Arctic storm it was supposed to be built to withstand
Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship, the Kulluk, grounded at remote Sitkalidak Island in Alaska on Jan. 1, 2013.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis footage
Waves crash over the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, Jan. 1, 2013.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, 17th Coast Guard District commander, Capt. Paul Mehler, federal on-scene coordinator for the Kulluk mishap, and Sean Churchfield, Shell’s incident commander, discuss the situation with Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Jan. 1, 2013.
USGS Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Schofield photo
Approximate location where Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship Kulluk grounded on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska.
Coast Guard photo via Ground Trekking Truth
Ocean Bay on Sitkalidak Island in Alaska, located close to Kodiak Island's southeast shore.
Stacy Studebaker, Kodiak Audubon Society photo
The west end of Sitkalidak Island's shore Ocean Beach, where shoals are visible beneath the waves. Sitkalidak Island is located near Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Creative Commons photo via Ground Truth Trekking
A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew evacuates 18 crewmen from Shell Oil's drilling ship Kulluk in 15 to 20-foot seas, 80 miles southwest of Kodiak, Alaska, on Dec. 29, 2012.
Coast Guard photo
A Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircraft from Air Station Kodiak overflies the tugs Aiviq and Nanuq tandem towing the mobile drilling unit Kulluk 116 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012. The tug Alert from Prince William Sound and the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley from Kodiak are en route to assist.
US Coast Guard photo
Royal Dutch Shell's Kulluk drillship in the Beaufort Sea in fall 2012.
Royal Dutch Shell photo
Curtis Smith, spokesperson for Shell Oil. June 1, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Shell Oil's Kulluk platform, in Seattle, May 25, 2012.
Courtesy Senator Begich's office
Shell's Aiviq support vessel in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
Shell Oil Alaska vice president Pete Slaiby listens to David Hayes, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, speaking at the Arctic Imperative Summit. August 26, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Royal Dutch Shell has already begun studying land and sea features to determine the best route and depth to place at least 400 miles of pipelines that can carry crude oil to the trans-Alaska pipeline. The company is considering several options across a wide swath of ocean and tundra. This map was created to provide a general idea of the direction those pipelines will take.
Aaron Jansen illustration
The Shell drilling vessel Noble Discoverer came close to shore in Unalaska on Saturday, July 14.
Kristjan B. Laxfoss photo
Shell Oil's 514-foot drill ship Noble Discoverer sits 68 miles west of Nome on Aug. 29, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Shell Oil's exploratory drilling platform departs Seattle for Alaska on June 27, 2012.
Courtesy Vigor Industrial
The Arctic Challenger was occupied by Caspian terns while docked in Southern California in 2007.
John Potter / California DFG
The Arctic Challenger, a barge Royal Dutch Shell is renovating to use in Arctic drilling operations.
Courtesy Shell Oil
The Arctic Challenger with the newly redesigned and repaired Containment Dome move away from the Port of Bellingham, Wash. on Dec. 12. The challenger had been moored since returning in September 2012 after a catastrophic failure of the first iteration of their containment process.
TJ Guiton photo
A night shot of the workers and equipment showing a markedly armored containment dome to replace the one which suffered a catastrophic failure in September 2012 during the initial testing process in calm, predictable conditions in the Salish Sea off of Anacortes, WA. Note the lateral ribs surrounding the upper portion of the dome as well as the outer steel plates to protect the dome from damage and enhance the strength of the structure to the pressures of ocean depths.
TJ Guiton
Shell Oil tests their "capping stack" in Everett, Washington on June 25, 2012.
Courtesy Shell Oil
Shell Oil's spill response gear staged in Wainwright. Summer 2011.
Ben Anderson photo
Greenpeace boat crew protest at Shell drill ship Noble Discoverer anchored near Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Alaska. August 5, 2012
Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace
Fennica, a Finnish icebreaker contracted to Shell's Arctic project, in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo

After days of stalled attempts and little movement, plans for getting the grounded Kulluk drilling rig removed from beach it rests on are starting to take shape.

The vessel is “sound and fit to tow,” Sean Churchfield, operations manager and incident commander for Royal Dutch Shell, told reporters at a press briefing Saturday afternoon. In the coming days, Unified Command -- the joint operation consisting of members of Shell, Noble Drilling Corp., U.S. Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and Kodiak stakeholders -- will attempt to tow the vessel 30 miles from its current grounding on Sitkalidak Island to refuge in Kiliuda Bay.

The Aiviq -- the Shell-owned tug in charge of moving the Kulluk across the Gulf of Alaska -- will serve as the main tow to Kiliuda Bay.

Churchfield said Unified Command has been working with the tug's builder, Edison Chouest Offshore, to “mitigate any potential future failures.” He still did not know why the Aiviq's engines had failed in the first place, saying the investigation into why had not been completed.

When exactly the Aiviq will make the tow is still unclear. It depends on weather, tides and dispatching the proper resources, according to U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler, federal on-scene coordinator. Despite repeated questions from reporters, there was no solid time-table -- nor specifics on just what exactly conditions crew would need to pull the Kulluk from the beach.

“A timeline is still difficult to nail down,” he said.

Mehler noted there was a sense of urgency in trying to remove the vessel as soon as possible, a sentiment shared by others involved in the operation.

“I have high hopes that by Monday the Kulluk will be gone,” said Colleen McCarthy, a Shell employee and member of Unified Command. “But I can't guarantee.”

Moving forward

On Saturday, Unified Command announced the path the Kulluk would take. Once (and if) responders can safely pull the Kulluk from the rocky beach it rests on, the conical drilling rig -- which does not have its own propulsion system -- will begin a 30-mile tow from its location on the north edge of Ocean Bay, up around the northwestern tip of Sitkalidak Island in Kiliuda Bay. Unified Command received a permit from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to move the Kulluk Friday night.

Steve Russell, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on-scene coordinator, said Kiliuda Bay was one of seven nearby areas of refuge.

Once there, it will undergo extensive inspection and evaluations by Shell, Noble and DEC. Churchfield couldn't say what would happen to the Kulluk from there, only that “depending what comes out of that assessment, then the next stage of the plan will evolve.”

Despite more than a dozen ships and multiple aircrafts on scene, “important pieces” of the operation are still waiting to be delivered. Mehler said those include a generator -- all of the Kulluk's generators were damaged in the storm -- and an expandable tow connection.

“The sense of urgency is to do this right,” Mehler said. “The urgency has been in place that we have all the steps, all the equipment and all the contingencies in place and that we've done all the 'what-ifs.'”

The Kulluk remains upright and stable according to Unified Command. Russell said there is still no evidence of any oil sheen in the area, and there is no indication the fuel tanks have been breached. The vessel is carrying up to 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel and another 12,000 of other petroleum-based products.

There is no indication of a leak, but booms have been deployed as a precaution in the area, with special attention toward salmon streams in the area.

While there has been some damage to upper areas of the Kulluk due to wave damage, officials have said there is no indication the hull has been breached. But it's unclear whether the outer-steel hull – which is between 1 and one-quarter to 1 and one-half inch thick -- will be able to stand being towed off the rocky bottom of Ocean Bay.

“We do not see that as a threat or a likely outcome,” Churchfield said.

Russell noted that DEC will be doing an evaluation of the area after the Kulluk is moved, looking for any oil sheen or other problems that might come to light when the vessel is moved.

“We certainly would re-evaluate taking a leaking vessel out there,” Russell said.

Kiliuda Bay and weather

Rumors started circulating Friday that the Kulluk could be headed for Kiliuda Bay. Larry Carroll owns Kodiak Adventures Lodge, the only lodge in Kiliuda Bay, and on Saturday said the bay is often used as refuge by fishermen. The sharp “S-turn” shape of the bay shields it from harsh Gulf of Alaska storms. However, despite the refuge, Carroll said the bay doesn't see a lot of traffic, even in the summer when he and his family operate fishing charters out of the lodge.

Weather in the area is expected to remain favorable with 34 mph winds and 9 foot seas. That should remain through Sunday night, when seas are expected to pick up to 17 feet.

High tide of over 8 feet is set for Sunday at 8 a.m, with a low tide at 3 p.m. The tides will be slightly more extreme going into the week, with highs over 9 feet starting Monday, with 2 foot negative tides starting Thursday. While Unified Command has said the tides factor into their decision making, they declined to elaborate on what sort of specific tides would be a help -- or a hindrance.

Jill Burke contributed reporting. Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com