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Plan approved to tow grounded rig to safe waters

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(MCT) — ANCHORAGE, Alaska—Efforts to pull the Shell drilling rig Kulluk from its near-shore perch on rocks and gravel moved ahead mainly in secret Saturday, though officials disclosed Alaska has approved a tow plan to a temporary destination in nearby safe waters and that towing could be attempted at any time.

They said that the tough, round rig is believed to be seaworthy and there was still no evidence it has caused any environmental damage.

“The vessel has been deemed sound and fit to tow, a tow plan has been developed, and the Unified Command has reviewed and approved that plan,” Sean Churchfield, Alaska operations chief for Shell, said at a news briefing Saturday afternoon in Anchorage.

“Currently we are maneuvering to put a tow line onto the Kulluk, so no tow effort has been made at this stage,” he said in response to a question.  “I don’t have a timeline for the completion of those activities. They are subject to weather and operational considerations.”

The plan is to take the Kulluk to a safe, protected refuge — Kodiak Island’s Kiliuda Bay, several miles north of Old Harbor — where it would undergo detailed inspection out of reach of the worst of the North Pacific storms. Only then would officials decide what to do next. One possibility would be to resume its voyage to a Seattle-area ship facility for refurbishing and repairs. 

Churchfield and a Coast Guard representative said at the news conference that they would not make the towing plan public. Churchfield said the plan was changing too quickly to release, though he didn’t explain why that would prevent him from disclosing a current version along with updates as they were made.

“As new information comes, it evolves relatively quickly,” Churchfield said. “We would prefer to keep that just a document we can manage and control as we develop the operations.”

Nevertheless, Churchfield and other officials discussed elements of the plan with reporters. He said a decision has been reached to leave the 155,000 gallons of fuel and other petroleum products on board — for now. There was also no immediate plan to lighten the Kulluk by removing equipment that had survived massive waves last week. Four lifeboats have already been swept off the deck.

Churchfield and the others said that any effort to muscle the craft into deeper water was dependent on tides, weather and readiness. They would not elaborate on what kind of severe conditions would delay a tow.

Two heavy pieces of equipment were still needed on the Kulluk as of Saturday mid-day — a large generator and a component of a towing kit, said Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler. But once they are delivered by Army Chinook helicopter, a tow attempt could begin at any time.

“We want to get this off as soon as we can,” Mehler said.

Churchfield said that a salvage crew on the rig would remain on baord with the tow, as would a Shell representative if he couldn’t be airlifted off in time.

If the Kulluk can be refloated, it will be towed about 30 miles to Kiliuda Bay, north of Old Harbor off Kodiak Island. Steve Russell, the state on-scene coordinator with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said the bay is one of seven pre-selected safe harbors in the vicinity that could accommodate a vessel the size of the Kulluk.

To get there, the rig would have to be towed due east at first, then northeast, then northwest through the entrance of Sitkalidak Strait. It would pass Dangerous Cape on its starboard side; Ghost Rocks would be off its port. Boom to stop the spread of spilled fuel, and oil-spill response vessels, are being positioned along the way, Russell said.

The plan assumes the Kulluk’s fuel tanks remain intact, Russell indicated.

“We certainly would reevaluate taking a leaking vessel in there,” he said. “The entry into Kiliuda Bay is for inspection and evaluation. There’ll be no fuel transfers, there’ll be no other operation like that.”

A permit from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources authorizes Shell and its contractors to attempt to remove the Kulluk from its grounding site adjacent to Sitkalidak Island. A separate permit allows the Kulluk and two tugs, the Aiviq and the Alert, to remain in Kiliuda Bay or Port Hobron nearby through Jan. 14. Both require Shell to prevent or clean up pollution and to not interfere with other uses of the waters or shoreline, including fishing.

The permits were released under a public records request.

The Aiviq, Kulluk’s custom-built tow and service boat, would be the primary tow vessel, even though the investigation is not complete into the failure of its four engines on Dec. 28, Churchfield said. That failure, in heavy seas while towing the Kulluk to Seattle, was a contributing factor in the ultimate grounding last week.

Churchfield said the owner of the Aiviq, Edison Chouest of Louisiana, has “been working with the vessel to ensure that they have mitigated any potential future failures.” The crew has been treating fuel and changing filters, but asked if fuel contamination caused the engine failures, Churchfield responded that the investigation was incomplete.

“Those are the mitigations they can take,” Churchfield said.

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