* Salvage teams found no signs of breaches to fuel tanks
* U.S. Coast Guard: more work to do on salvage operation
* Operation involved more than 630 people, cost still
By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Jan 7 A Shell oil drilling
rig that ran aground last week reached a safe harbor on Monday,
where it will be examined to assess its seaworthiness after a
week on the rocks near an Alaskan island.
Stormy weather had wrestled the Kulluk from towing ships a
week ago, and tossed it to the shore of Sitkalidak Island. On
Sunday night, it was refloated ahead of the 30-mile (48 km) tow,
before dropping anchor just past noon on Monday in Kiliuda Bay,
which was previously designated a refuge for disabled vessels.
The fortunes of the saucer-shaped drillship, which worked in
the Beaufort Sea late last year, face particular scrutiny
because it was a major part of Royal Dutch Shell's
controversial and error-prone 2012 Arctic drilling program.
Shell said it had not yet been determined whether the Kulluk
will be fixed in Kiliuda Bay or somewhere else, and whether it
could continue on for planned winter maintenance near Seattle.
The salvage teams had earlier found no signs of breaches to
its fuel tanks and only one area where seawater leaked onboard.
"At this stage, it's too early to gauge any impact on our
ongoing exploration plans, but with the Kulluk now safely
recovered, we'll carry out a detailed assessment of the vessel
to understand what those impacts might be," Marvin Odum,
president of Shell's U.S. arm, said in a statement.
PARTNER IN TOW
The Kulluk went aground in a storm on Dec. 31 after the ship
towing it, the Aiviq, lost power and its tow connection in the
Kodiak archipelago, far from where it began its well in
September and October.
On Monday, the Aiviq towed it to Kiliuda Bay even though an
investigation into its failures is not yet complete.
Alaska environmentalist Rick Steiner questioned Shell's
reliance on the Aiviq and said he believed the problems with the
Kulluk and its other contracted drillship, Noble Corp's
Discoverer, would preclude any drilling this year.
While Shell officials would not yet speculate on the
upcoming Arctic drilling season, the response team will for now
be relieved to have the Kulluk in safer waters.
"I think everybody on site and at the command center was
overjoyed, yelling and screaming and happy," said Steve Russell
of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the
state's response coordinator.
Coast Guard Captain Paul Mehler recognized it as a major
milestone, but stressed there was still a lot of work to do. "We
are not letting our guard down," he said.
Prior to the Kulluk accident, Shell's main problem in Alaska
was the Discoverer, which had been assigned to Chukchi Sea work
but failed to meet federal air standards, prompting Shell in
June to ask the Environmental Protection Agency for a permit
with looser limits for air pollution.
In September, the ship dragged its anchor in the Aleutian
port of Dutch Harbor and nearly grounded on the beach there.
After drilling stopped, the Discoverer was cited by the
Coast Guard for safety and environmental-systems deficiencies,
which Shell and Noble vowed to fix before this summer's season.
And another ship deemed necessary for drilling was so beset
with problems that it never even made it to Alaska in 2012. The
Arctic Challenger, an oil-containment barge built specifically
for Shell's Arctic drilling, failed to win Coast Guard approval
for seaworthiness in time to allow any drilling to oil-bearing
depths. Shell was permitted to drill only "top-hole" wells, to
depths of about 1,400 feet (430 meters) below the seafloor
As for the Kulluk, as of Sunday more than 630 people were
deployed in response, along with a large fleet of vessels and
aircraft, according to the incident command team. Shell will be
paying for it all, though the cost to date is unknown.
"We undertake significant planning and preparation in an
effort to ensure these types of incidents do not occur," Odum
said. "We're very sorry it did."