OLD HARBOR -- Royal Dutch Shell deserves to be commended and congratulated for its handling of the aftermath of the Kulluk grounding. I am very impressed with them because they do listen and they do care, something that can't always be said about companies of their size.
Shell is also safety oriented. After observing their handling of this situation, I'm convinced that safety and protection of the environment is on top the list in everything they do.
The removal of the Kulluk from the rocks on Sitkalidak Island was just short of a miracle. And I am using the term "miracle" to describe the perseverance of the Shell management and staff. They insisted on saving the rig, and doing it in a manner that was safe for those involved as well as the wildlife and habitat that could have been affected.
I and the people I represent are intimately familiar with the area where the rig landed on the island and the heavy seas that pound without ceasing, especially at this time of year. Anyone who has any ocean-going experience in Alaska's winter seas know all too well just how powerful those waves are and the damage they can leave in their wake. The survival of the rig in those conditions is a testament to the design and engineering capabilities of the oil industry. Almost any other vessel or barge in that same situation would have been summarily destroyed or damaged to the point of ruin.
This rig's design and its strength show that the oil industry does know what it is doing when it comes to protecting the environment. The coastal areas of the Gulf of Alaska where this rig went aground sustain some of the worst water and wave action that anyone can imagine. Surf of 40 to 60 feet pounding against rocky shoals and cliffs usually grinds up anything that lands on them within a matter of hours. In the case of the Kulluk, days of relentless pounding by enormous seas did not even breach the hull of the vessel. There may be some damage to the top structure from waves that broke over the deck, some 40 feet above the water line, such things as life boats and other external gear were torn off the rig. But overall, it held up, and it held up extremely well.
What we at Old Harbor were most impressed with was Shell's concern for the environment, the culture of Old Harbor people and their subsistence way of life. . Sitkalidak Island is nearly 100 percent owned by Old Harbor Native Corporation, and the Island is very important to its people's history, culture and subsistence gathering.
Over 200 years ago the Russians attacked the Natives of Old Harbor. The women and children sought safety on Refuge Rock, but that didn't stop the Russians. They killed at least 2,000 men, women and children. It is possible that even more people were killed, as the figure of 2,000 dead is the lower of most estimates. The people of Old Harbor feel very strongly about ensuring that the lands around Refuge Rock are protected. They feel just as strongly about protecting the rest of the island as a subsistence-rich area for shellfish, seabirds, sea lions, seal, fish, bear, deer, and many other plants that are harvested throughout the year.
We commend Shell because they got the message immediately and assigned those needs top priority in any decision made with regard to what they would or would not do in removing the rig from the shoreline of Sitkalidak Island. They are continuing to keep these concerns on the top of their priority list as they work to repair the Kulluk in Kiliuda Bay.
Accidents happen. In this case, Shell's performance was stellar. I can't say that about the tug operations that created the problem. The master had to know that this weather system would be bearing down on them. Most masters who run that route would have pulled into a sheltered area before the storm hit and waited it out. For whatever reason that didn't happen in this case, so the rig got away from them. It took Shell to step in and take control. Thankfully, they did just that, and they did it in a superb manner.
The rig is now safely anchored in Kiliuda Bay where Shell can spend the time to bring it back to sea condition, then move it to a facility where all the necessary repairs can be completed.
To those who have been fighting to stop offshore oil development, I hope you all have learned something by this mishap. This rig is designed to withstand the pressures that the Arctic ice can throw at it. If this rig survived the massive pressures that were thrown at it by the Pacific Ocean's most powerful winter storms, it says a lot about its design and strength. It shows we have little to worry about when it comes to having this rig operate in the Arctic.
We have all also learned a lot about Shell and their commitment to getting the job done right.
And by right I mean listening, caring and respecting the needs of those most affected, the people in the region who have developed a rich and dynamic culture. I thank Shell, and I am glad they have shown us just how much they care. The size of the company means they have the resources to do it right.
The depth of their understanding of the needs of the people of Old Harbor shows that they aren't too big to listen and to care.
Carl Marrs is the chief executive of Old Harbor Native Corp.
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