Shell oil-drilling ship runs aground on Alaska’s Sitkalidak Island

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s foray into Arctic offshore drilling suffered a serious setback Monday night when one of its two Alaska drilling rigs ran aground in shallow water off Sitkalidak Island.

Officials at a unified command center, made up of the Coast Guard, Shell, state responders and others, said the Kulluk grounded on rocks off the southeast side of the island.

The Kulluk had been under tow by a 360-foot anchor handler, the Aiviq, and a tugboat, the Alert. The vessels were moving north in the Gulf of Alaska along Kodiak Island, trying to escape the worst of a North Pacific storm that included winds near 70 mph and swells to 35 feet.

About 4:15 p.m., the drill ship separated from the Aiviq about 10 to 15 miles offshore, and grounding was inevitable, said Coast Guard Cmdr. Shane Montoya, the acting federal on-scene coordinator, at a press conference.

“Once the Aiviq lost its tow, we knew the Alert could not manage the Kulluk on its own as far as towing, and that’s when we started planning for the grounding,” he said.

The command center gave instructions to the nine tug crew members to guide the drill ship to the place where it would cause the least environmental damage. The tug cut the unmanned ship loose at 8:15 p.m., and it grounded at 9 p.m. near the north tip of Ocean Bay on uninhabited Sitkalidak Island, which is on the southeast side of Kodiak Island.

“The Alert was not able to do anything as far as towing the Kulluk but tried to maintain some kind of control,” Cmdr. Montoya said.

The drill ship drafts 35 to 40 feet of water. The Coast Guard planned to fly out early Tuesday to plan a salvage operation and possible spill response. It is carrying 150,000 gallons of diesel and about 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid, Cmdr. Montoya said.

Susan Childs, Shell’s on-scene coordinator, said it was too early to know how the vessel would react to the pounding of the storm when it was aground and stationary.

She was optimistic about its salvage prospects and its chances for staying intact.

“The unique design of the Kulluk means the diesel fuel tanks are isolated in the center of the vessel and encased in very heavy steel,” she said. “When the weather subsides and it is safe to do so, we will dispatch crews to the location and begin a complete assessment.”

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said in a situation report that it was unknown if there was a release of any oil product.

The Kulluk is designed for extended drilling in Arctic waters and underwent $292 million in technical upgrades since 2006 to prepare for Alaska offshore exploration. The drill ship worked during the short 2012 open-water season in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s north coast. It’s ice-reinforced, funnel-shape hull can deflect moving ice downward and break it into small pieces.

Attached to a drilling prospect, the Kulluk is designed to handle waves 18 feet high. When disconnected from a well, it’s designed to handle seas to 40 feet. Garth Pulkkinen of Noble Corp., the operator of the drill ship, said it was never in danger of capsizing.

The vessel first separated from a towing vessel Thursday night south of Kodiak Island.

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