WASHINGTON — Newly released documents reveal the extent of problems with anti-pollution equipment on a Shell-contracted Arctic drillship earlier this year.
The records, provided by the U.S. Coast Guard in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, also describe a botched fire drill by the crew of another Shell-contracted drilling rig months before it began boring an exploratory oil well in the Chukchi Sea.
That rig, the Transocean Polar Pioneer, was moored in Seattle and being prepared for its Arctic mission in May, when the Coast Guard conducted an initial inspection and two emergency drills onboard.
Neither went well. “It was apparent that Transocean was not ready for the exam,” the Coast Guard said, in documenting the failed fire drill and abandon ship drill on May 19.
For instance, during the fire drill, one crew member didn’t know where to find the nearest portable fire extinguisher or a call box to notify others of the fake blaze.
To notify responsible people, “he walked to his foreman, a distance of at least 100 feet, (and) walked past at least two rooms with phones (and) two call boxes — all while wearing a portable radio,” the Coast Guard said.
Other documented deficiencies included a disconnected fire hose, open doors and improper protective gear.
During a separate abandon ship drill, crew members arrived wearing life jackets instead of special immersion suits required to help them survive in freezing Arctic waters.
Many of the crew members were new to the vessel and were still learning its systems, the Coast Guard noted. When given a second chance to redo the drills two weeks later, on June 2, the crew passed.
There were no problems with the fire drill and abandon ship drills performed satisfactorily on Shell’s other Arctic drillship, the Noble Discoverer, on May 20.
A Transocean spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Shell spokesman Curtis Smith noted that “immediately after the inspection, Transocean addressed the items in question.”
“We took seriously the United States Coast Guard’s inspection of the Transocean Polar Pioneer,” he said.
But Travis Nichols, a spokesman for Greenpeace, which requested the documents, dryly noted that “Shell isn’t going to get any do-overs in the Arctic.”
“The company’s repeated failures in basic readiness tests show that when things go wrong in the Arctic ocean, it will be a disaster,” Nichols said. “The president should take these reports as the dire warning signs they are and put a moratorium on Arctic drilling now.”
The records shed more light on separate problems with anti-pollution equipment on the drillship Noble Discoverer when it pulled into Hawaii waters in April, on its way to Washington state.
The device, an oil-water separator, is designed to strip oil out of bilge water, keeping it from being discharged into the sea. The equipment already has been a source of problems for Noble. Coast Guard officials discovered it was improperly modified after the Discoverer’s last Arctic drilling in 2012, ultimately leading to felony charges.
At the time, a makeshift barrel and pump system allowed bilge and wastewater to accumulate and be discharged from the Discoverer without being processed through the required pollution prevention equipment. Noble Drilling paid $12.2 million and pleaded guilty to eight charges in connection with the violations documented on the Discoverer in November 2012.
The entire ship — including the oil-water separator — was repaired and improved in a Singapore shipyard afterward. During the stopover in Hawaii, on the Discoverer’s way back to the United States, Coast Guard officials boarded the drillship for a routine inspection and found problems with the oil-water separator.
For instance, during a 13-hour period the device had last been used, it processed just 6.4 cubic meters of liquid, barely exceeding the 5 cubic meters it is designed to handle in a single hour. When the minimal throughput couldn’t be explained by the chief engineer and crew, the Coast Guard asked for an operational test of the system.
But the device failed to work; it could not get suction from a bilge tank, as designed, and it kept switching between operating modes. Extensive troubleshooting over hours led to the replacement of “severely clogged” filters, but the Coast Guard said crew members were “still unable to demonstrate proper operation of the system” and “could not explain the anomalies” in alarms and throughput.
A Coast Guard ordered detention was imposed. Noble appealed the detention but was denied.
In rejecting Noble’s appeal, a Coast Guard officer in charge of marine inspections noted that the Discoverer crew “either had not identified the problem on their own or, if so, failed to identify the issue to the team when they came aboard.”
“The lack of a properly operating (oil-water separator) presents an unreasonable threat of harm to the marine environment,” the officer said. “The OWS system was clearly not operating properly when the team asked the crew to demonstrate operation. The chief engineer and crew did not seem familiar with the OWS system.”
A Noble spokesman stressed that there was never a risk of pollution and that the equipment was certified for use after its upgrades in Singapore — before arriving in Hawaii.
“At the time of testing during the stopover, this equipment was not operating in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications due to an equipment malfunction,” said Noble spokesman John Breed. “A representative of the equipment manufacturer was onboard the vessel during the test and assisted in the evaluation process and repairs. Following repairs, the equipment was verified by the Coast Guard and the vessel was promptly cleared to sail and departed on schedule.”
Shell’s Smith said the episode was a mechanical repair, something required from time to time on any equipment.
“Both Shell and Noble have significant procedural and safety management system reviews in place,” Smith said. “These actions are designed to ensure integrity of the Discoverer and of Noble’s marine operations.”
There have been no other documented problems with the oil-water separator on the Noble Discoverer since the incident in Hawaii.
The U.S. Coast Guard documents obtained by Greenpeace are available below.