The Shell mobile drilling unit Kulluk is stable after running aground New Year's Eve near Kodiak following failed attempts to tow the vessel in a fierce storm, responders said during a Tuesday press conference.
"Following the U.S. Coast Guard reconnaissance flight earlier today, the Kulluk is upright and rocking with a slow, but stable motion," said Shell Alaska Operations Manager Sean Churchfield.
Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler III, the incident commander for the Kulluk's grounding, said it happened at about 9 p.m. Monday on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island in Ocean Bay.
The Tuesday conference was convened at the Anchorage Downtown Marriott by the Unified Command, with more than 200 members including the Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Royal Dutch Shell and Noble Drilling as well as other groups. The command identified four priorities for its response Tuesday: safety, oil spill prevention, assessment of the scene, and the salvage of the Kulluk.
Mehler said the Kulluk's position, maintained despite conditions he described as including 70-knot winds and 50-foot seas, will hopefully give salvage crews a chance to board the unit.
"Our objective is to get salvors on board Kulluk and see if we can assess the situation," Mehler said. "This allows us a better opportunity to do this safely."
Steven Russell with DEC said there was no evidence of environmental contamination from the Kulluk, but characterized the incident as one of the largest salvage operations in Alaska in recent years.
According to Shell representative Sean Churchfield, three people have suffered minor injuries during the response to the Kulluk's grounding, all of whom have returned to duty.
Unified Command members answered relatively few media questions at the Tuesday press conference, with about half a dozen responded to before the event was closed. After protests from reporters, a second question-and-answer session was scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday.
The Unified Command said Monday that it ordered the tug Alert to separate from the unmanned Kulluk around 8:15 p.m. for the safety of the nine crew members on the Alert.
At about 4:40 p.m., the Aiviq, a vessel used to tow the Kulluk, lost its tow line roughly 10 to 15 miles away from the position where the Kulluk grounded.
The drill unit has about 150,000 gallons of ultra-low sulphur diesel and roughly 12,000 gallons of combined lube oil and hydraulic fluid.
"The unique design of the Kulluk means the diesel fuel tanks are isolated in the center of the vessell and encased in heavy steel," said Incident Commander Susan Childs.
Since Thursday, there have been repeated attempts to tow the Kulluk to safe harbor after the Aiviq lost its tow line due to weather conditions.
The Unified Command was set up Friday including a variety of other federal, state, local, and tribal partners working with Royal Dutch Shell and Edison Chouest Offshore.
On Saturday, the Coast Guard evacuated the Kulluk's 18 crew members due to weather safety concerns.
“The extreme weather conditions and high seas continue to be a challenge.” said Susan Childs, Shell's incident commander. “Our priority right now is maintaining the safety of our response personnel and evaluating next steps.”
The Kulluk was used by Shell for exploratory oil operations in the Beaufort Sea earlier this year.
Shell also used the Noble Discoverer, another drill ship, in the Chukchi Sea, and it was reported last week that the Coast Guard cited it for crew safety and pollution-equipment violations during a November port call in Seward.
Contact Neil Torquiano and Chris Klint