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Salvage crews await weather as Shell's grounded Arctic drill rig sways in place

Suzanna Caldwell
The Kulluk drill rig near Sitkalidak Island off Kodiak
USCG 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 Kulluk drill rig off Kodiak Island on Jan. 2, 2013
USCG photo
The Shell drilling vessel Noble Discoverer came close to shore in Unalaska on Saturday, July 14.
Kristjan B. Laxfoss photo
Shell Oil's drill rig Kulluk, grounded off Kodiak Island by an Arctic storm it was supposed to be built to withstand
Shell Oil's 514-foot drill ship Noble Discoverer sits 68 miles west of Nome on Aug. 29, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
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
Shell Oil's exploratory drilling platform departs Seattle for Alaska on June 27, 2012.
Courtesy Vigor Industrial
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
The Arctic Challenger was occupied by Caspian terns while docked in Southern California in 2007.
John Potter / California DFG
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
The Arctic Challenger, a barge Royal Dutch Shell is renovating to use in Arctic drilling operations.
Courtesy Shell Oil
Approximate location where Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship Kulluk grounded on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska.
Coast Guard photo via Ground Trekking Truth
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
Ocean Bay on Sitkalidak Island in Alaska, located close to Kodiak Island's southeast shore.
Stacy Studebaker, Kodiak Audubon Society 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
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
Shell Oil tests their "capping stack" in Everett, Washington on June 25, 2012.
Courtesy Shell Oil
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
Shell Oil's spill response gear staged in Wainwright. Summer 2011.
Ben Anderson 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
Greenpeace boat crew protest at Shell drill ship Noble Discoverer anchored near Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Alaska. August 5, 2012
Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace
Royal Dutch Shell's Kulluk drillship in the Beaufort Sea in fall 2012.
Royal Dutch Shell photo
Fennica, a Finnish icebreaker contracted to Shell's Arctic project, in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
Curtis Smith, spokesperson for Shell Oil. June 1, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
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
Shell Oil's Kulluk platform, in Seattle, May 25, 2012.
Courtesy Senator Begich's office
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
Shell's Aiviq support vessel in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
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

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.

RELATED: Arctic Ocean vs. ANWR -- a tale of two oil fields

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."

Mechanical failures

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 .