Damaged Arctic icebreaker’s route questioned

The MSV Fennica (Tom Doyle/Flickr)
The MSV Fennica (Tom Doyle/Flickr)

WASHINGTON — New marine tracking data shows a Shell-contracted icebreaker may have crossed through shallow waters that offered little clearance between the vessel’s bottom and the ocean floor before a 3-foot hole was discovered in its hull.

The Automatic Identification System data — location information captured every minute from the MSV Fennica — shows its July 3 route away from the Alaska Port of Dutch Harbor before a leak identified by a marine pilot and other crew onboard the icebreaker forced it to turn back.

When that AIS tracking data is overlaid over navigational charts of the area — which date back decades — it appears the Fennica crossed through waters with charted depths of as little as 31.5 feet. While an additional 3 feet may have been gained by high tide at the time, that would give the Fennica potentially scant under-keel clearance over some of the rocky shoal in those waters. The Fennica’s recorded draft is 27 feet.

It appears likely the Fennica was gouged when it traveled near a previously uncharted rocky shoal that was documented by a government survey ship on Wednesday and the subject of an alert to mariners a day later.

But conservation group Oceana, which conducted the analysis, said it suggests Shell’s contracted icebreaker still took a riskier path instead of a deeper alternative route around nearby Hog Island, as it trekked toward proposed drilling sites in the Arctic Ocean.

“There are safer, more precautionary ways for them to go,” said Chris Krenz, a senior scientist and Arctic campaign manager for the group. “The Fennica could have easily traveled along a much safer route instead of going over a shallow, rocky shoal in an area that (already) is not well charted.”

“This is risk-prone behavior, not risk-averse behavior,” Krenz said.

Krenz said it revived memories of the Dec. 31, 2012 grounding of the Kulluk, a Shell-owned drilling rig that ran aground on a rocky Alaska island after the company tried towing it across the stormy Gulf of Alaska. After investigations, the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board rapped Shell for failing to adequately assess the risks of the tow job.

More granular ship position detail was not immediately available Friday from Shell or Arctia, the Finnish company that owns the Fennica.

But a Shell spokesman on Monday said the Fennica’s planned route kept it in charted depths of at least 42 feet.

And Rick Entenmann, president of the Alaska Marine Pilots’ Western Alaska region, said the Fennica’s path kept it in charted depths of 7 1/2 to 10 fathoms of water — roughly 45 to 60 feet.

“The vessel would have had at least 10 feet under the keel,” Entenmann said. “Plus, we had a 3-foot tide.”

The Fennica is one of two ice-management vessels in Shell’s Arctic fleet.

Arctia and Shell are developing a repair plan that must be approved by the classification society Det Norske Veritas. The Coast Guard can review and offer its input into the repair plan.

The work could be done at the Fennica’s current location, in Dutch Harbor. The founder of a local repair company has suggested that the work is relatively straightforward.

But if more extensive work is needed, it could require moving the Fennica to a dry dock, a potentially time-consuming operation.

Shell has asked regulators for permission to drill two wells at its Burger prospect in the Chukchi Sea, about 70 miles off Alaska’s coastline. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is reviewing the company’s applications for permits to drill. Other key federal approvals have already been issued.

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About The Author

Jennifer A. Dlouhy covers energy policy, politics and other issues for The Houston Chronicle and other Hearst Newspapers from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on legal affairs for Congressional Quarterly. She also has worked at The Beaumont Enterprise, The San Antonio Express-News and other newspapers. Jennifer enjoys cooking, gardening and hiking. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and toddler son.