Salvage crews plan to rescue grounded drilling rig

Salvagers are preparing to pull Shell’s stranded Arctic drilling rig from the rocky coast of an Alaska island, drawing on visits to the beached vessel and five flyovers conducted on Friday.

The Coast Guard staged response equipment near the 266-foot Kulluk rig’s current resting spot, on the southeast coast off Sitkalidak Island, in preparation for the recovery attempt, which could take place as early as this weekend.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources also has issued a permit to Shell authorizing the Kulluk’s removal and officials have arranged with the Old Harbor Native Corporation that owns the land near the downed rig for access to the shoreline.

Twelve vessels are en route to the location to help out, with three already at the scene near Kodiak Island, Alaska. Some of the ships are coming from Seattle and some of the rescue equipment was coming from as far away as Germany.

Coast Guard, Shell and others operating as a single “unified command,” are hoping Saturday to hook a main tow line to the Kulluk to test it in preparation for the recovery operation.

Officials said they also are deploying boom on Kodiak Island, to help insulate salmon streams and shoreline from any potential fuel contamination.

Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler III said Friday that a continued break in the stormy weather that first brought down the Kulluk has “provided an excellent opportunity” to move gear to the area and “make significant progress toward completing the operation.”

Emergency tow equipment was lowered to the rig on Wednesday, along with a five-person team of salvage specialists that have helped rescue other beached vessels. All told, the salvage experts have made three visits to the rig over the past three days, in a bid to assess its integrity and develop a plan for heaving it away.

During at least one of those operations, the salvage crew discovered wave damage to the top sides of the Kulluk and found that a number of water-tight doors have been breached, allowing water to flow inside. Salvagers also heard what was described as a “breathing noise” from one of the vents inside the rig, which could be evidence of a breach.

Emergency generators also are inoperable, which could complicate efforts to extract the rig from an area that is critical habitat for endangered Steller sea lions, threatened sea otters and other wildlife.

Although equipment and crews have generally been lowered by helicopter to the Kulluk, on Friday, a helicopter successfully landed on the rig’s helideck for the first time since it plowed into the rocky coast near Kodiak City, Alaska.

One of Friday’s surveillance flights included three biologists, including one from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who conducted an aerial assessment.

But other specialists and outside observers are still barred from the site.

Federal officials are preventing outsiders, including those affiliated with environmental groups, from flying close to the rig. The Federal Aviation Administration is maintaining a temporary flight restriction, and a Coast Guard cutter is patroling a safety zone one nautical mile around the Kulluk. Officials with the Unified Command of Shell, the Coast Guard, state officials and other partners said the restrictions “were put in place to ensure the safety of response personnel, as well as local mariners and aviation pilots.”

The Kulluk hit the rocks on Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak City, Alaska, on Dec. 31, following a five-day battle to tow the unpropelled rig to safe harbor amid 70-mph winds and waves that climbed four-stories high. Shell had been towing the 266-foot floating rig to a Seattle shipyard for repairs two months after it finished boring the first half of an exploratory oil well in the Beaufort Sea.

There are no signs of a fuel leak, but about 140,000 gallons of diesel are inside tanks on the rig.

Unified Command officials said they are abiding by a wildlife protection plan and have arranged for bird rescue programs in case they are needed. Protected species observers also will be on the scene.

On Friday, Shell and the Coast Guard were working to pacify Alaska residents angry about the response, by holding public briefings and touting their accessibility to reporters. Unified Command representatives met with village leaders in Old Harbor, after earlier meetings were canceled because of bad weather.

“With a break in the weather, we were able to get representatives from the Unified Command to Old Harbor today to hear about the concerns of local residents,” said Duane Dvorak, the local on-scene coordinator.

Separately, the Coast Guard’s criminal investigation team is evaluating a series of problems that were unearthed on the other drilling rig Shell was using in the Arctic last summer, the Noble Discoverer.

The Coast Guard identified deficiencies with the safety, pollution-control and propulsion systems on the drillship in November, after crew members noticed a growing vibration on the Discoverer and used a towline to cruise into Seward, Alaska.

When Coast Guard investigators boarded the ship they discovered problems with the safety and pollution-prevention equipment that prompted them to order the vessel to remain in port until the deficiencies were corrected. They also called for the criminal investigation team to probe the problems.

The detention order was lifted Dec. 19, but the Coast Guard’s investigation is still under way.

Noble Corp. said in a December statement that its internal review also identified “certain other potential regulatory non-compliance issues, . . . including possible unauthorized collected water discharges outside the period of drilling operations.”

In a statement Friday, Shell said that Noble is “swiftly addressing the discrepancies identified in the Coast Guard inspection of that vessel.”

“Noble has addressed and closed many of the items noted in the inspection, and others are planned for the Discoverer’s post-season maintenance schedule,” Shell said. “Shell will not deploy the Noble Discoverer for exploration operations until all post-season issues have been corrected.”