Official: No sign drilling rig’s hull is breached

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Crews aboard two aircraft flew over an oil drilling ship Tuesday that went aground in a severe Alaska storm and saw no sign that the vessel was leaking fuel or that its hull had been breached.

The Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig used this summer in the Arctic was aground off a small island near Kodiak Island, where the ship, the Kulluk, appeared stable, said federal on-scene response coordinator Capt. Paul Mehler.

“There is no sign of a release of any product,” Mehler said during a news conference at unified command center at an Anchorage hotel.

When the storm eases and weather permits, the plan is to get marine experts onboard the Kulluk to take photos and videos, and then come up with a more complete salvage plan.

The rig ran aground Monday on a sand and gravel shore off an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska.

Mehler said the Kulluk is carrying about 143,000 gallons of diesel and about 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid. A Coast Guard C-130 plane and a helicopter were used to fly over the grounded vessel Tuesday morning. The severe weather did not permit putting the marine experts on board the drilling rig, which is near shore and being pounded by stormy seas.

Mehler said there was a team of about 500 people working on a response to the situation “with many more coming.”

The goal remains to get salvagers aboard the Kulluk and the ship refloated, he said.

A Shell official said the drilling rig was built with a double-sided hull of reinforced steel that is 3 inches thick. It recently had undergone $292 million in improvements before being put into service for a short time this past summer in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s north coast.

Stormy weather eased Tuesday with waves 25 to 30 feet and winds reduced to about 35 mph. Winds were 70 mph and waves had reached 50 feet overnight, the National Weather Service said. The drilling rig’s difficulties go back to Thursday when it separated from a towing vessel south of Kodiak Island as it was being towed to Seattle for maintenance. The rig grounded Monday night on a sand and gravel shore off the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska.

Sean Churchfield, operations manager for Shell Alaska, said once the situation is under control an investigation will be conducted into the cause. He did not know whether the findings would be made public. The Coast Guard said it also would be investigating and its findings would be public.

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who is the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, issued a statement Tuesday expressing his concerns about the Kulluk situation.

“Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies,” Markey said. “Drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment.”

The Kulluk was being towed Monday by a 360-foot anchor handler, the Aiviq, and a tugboat, the Alert. The vessels were moving north along Kodiak Island, trying to escape the worst of the storm. About 4:15 p.m., the drill ship separated from the Aiviq about 10 to 15 miles off shore. The tug boat crew guided the drill ship to a place where it would cause the least environmental damage and cut it loose. It grounded at about 9 p.m.

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Associated Press staff writers Dan Joling in Anchorage and Donna Blankinship in Seattle contributed to this story.

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