Rig Grounded off Alaska Ready to be Towed

From CNN

A Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling barge that ran aground last week off southern Alaska is ready to be towed, officials said Sunday.

Inclement weather had hampered earlier efforts to connect a tow line to the Kulluk rig so it can be moved about 30 miles north to Kiliuda Bay, where authorities plan to make a more thorough assessment.

By Sunday night, the main tow line was attached. Recovery is expected to begin Monday, though it could begin earlier if conditions are favorable throughout the night, according to an update on the response effort’s official website.

The effort consists of a “unified command” including Shell, the U.S. Coast Guard, Alaska’s state environmental conservation department, Noble Drilling and the borough of Kodiak Island.

The 266-foot diameter Kulluk was being towed back to its winter home in Seattle when it ran into a severe storm December 28 off the Alaskan coast. The Coast Guard evacuated the rig‘s 18-man crew the next day, and it drifted for 10 hours the next day after the tug that was towing it lost power.

On Monday night — New Year’s Eve — tug crews had to cut the rig loose during a storm that whipped up 24-foot waves. That led to its grounding off uninhabited Sitkalidak Island, about 200 miles south of Anchorage, in an area where water is 32 to 48 feet deep.

Most of the nearby shore is owned by a native Alaskan corporation on adjacent Kodiak Island, according to Steven Russell, an official with Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation. State officials are working with residents to assess any environmental impact caused by the grounding.

A Sunday update noted no visible signs of leaks thus far. Sean Churchfield, the incident commander and operations manager for Shell Alaska, said the previous day the rig’s fuel tanks appear intact, and naval architects report the vessel is sound and fit to tow.

“Currently, the Kulluk recovery operation does not pose any environmental threat that would preclude (the Tanner Crab Fishery and others) from opening,” said Russell.

As much as 150,000 gallons of ultra low sulfur diesel and approximately 12,000 gallons of other petroleum products are on board the Kulluk — a double-hulled steel vessel with a helicopter landing pad and tower in the middle designed for drilling in Arctic waters.

All the fuel was to power equipment and did not come from drilling operations. The rig had been working in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska’s North Slope, which is on the other side of the vast state from where it now rests.

Shell’s Arctic exploration plans caused widespread concern among environmentalists and were held up after BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

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