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Coast Guard hearing to probe Shell oil rig mishap in Alaska

Royal Dutch Shell, as well as its contractors Noble Drilling and Edison Chouest, will answer questions from the U.S. Coast Guard at a hearing in Anchorage this week, called to investigate the New Year's Eve grounding of the oil rig Kulluk on Alaska's Kodiak Island as it transited from Unalaska toward Seattle.

A Coast Guard formal marine casualty investigation hearing is scheduled for noon Monday in the Loussac Library, Assembly Hall Chambers, to investigate the contributing causes that led to the conical drilling unit's grounding on Sitkalidak Island on Dec. 31.

The Coast Guard's investigation is one of several being conducted as a result of Shells' activity in Alaska waters last summer. An investigation also being conducted into safety violations allegedly made on the Noble Discoverer was referred to the U.S. Attorney's office after the Coast Guard's initial inspection revealed serious problems.

Shell has since announced it is suspending its 2013 drilling plans in the waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

A federal investigation, dubbed the Expedited Assessment of 2012 Arctic Operations, was launched in January by the Interior Department. Citing regulatory uncertainty, ConocoPhillips Alaska announced in April it would pause its Arctic Ocean drilling plans, which had included drilling operations beginning next summer.

The Kulluk's mishap occurred after a fierce winter storm brewed while the vessel was under tow by the 360-foot Aiviq. The Aiviq lost its tow during the storm after all four of its engines failed, prompting the heroic Coast Guard helicopter evacuation of the 18 crewmembers on the Kulluk. The Aiviq was later able to restart its engines and re-establish a tow with the Kulluk, only to lose it several more times over the following days. A Crowley tug, the Alert, held a tow to the drill rig despite 40-foot seas and 40 mph winds, but was unable to make headway in the storm and eventually was ordered to release the rig. It grounded New Year's Eve and was later pulled from the beach, floated to Unalaska and loaded on a lift ship, which transported it to Singapore for repairs.

The Coast Guard conducts investigations following marine casualties to determine the causal and contributing factors that led to the incident. This allows the Coast Guard to potentially save lives and protect the environment in the future by identifying what went wrong and how it can be avoided in the future, the agency said in a release.

The investigative hearings are an essential part of the investigative process, the release said, which provide a forum for the investigating officer to collect information from government and industry professionals about the incident.

Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander, Coast Guard 17th District, ordered the formal marine casualty investigation to examine the facts, circumstances, and causal factors involved in the Kulluk grounding.

Cmdr. Joshua McTaggart from the Coast Guard Investigations National Center of Expertise is conducting the investigation with the assistance of technical advisors from Coast Guard Sector Anchorage and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board are also participating in the investigation.

Witnesses from the Coast Guard, Shell, Nobel, and other organizations, as identified, will be called to testify about the facts and circumstance surrounding the grounding of the Kulluk.

Once the investigation is completed, the investigating offi cer will submit a written report of the investigation, which will include findings of facts, conclusions, and recommendations.

Ostebo will use the findings and recommendations within the report to determine whether additional measures are required to prevent such marine casualties and what if any actions need to be taken to promote safety of life and property at sea.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman.

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