(photo: hyperion327 / flickr)

Four weeks ago, on Saturday, September 16th, in clear, calm, warm summer weather on Puget Sound, something happened while Shell Oil was testing its new, post-Deepwater Horizon oil blowout containment dome.  The dome system was being deployed during a certification test being performed by Shell, its agent in the refurbishment and system makeover of the 35-year-old barge, Arctic Challenger, Superior Marine Technical Services, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).

Something happened.  The test failed miserably, and the containment dome was severely damaged.  At the time, the Los Angeles Times reported the following:

The refurbishment was completed last week and the vessel underwent sea trials in Washington’s Puget Sound, and a series of tests were successfully completed on the newly designed Arctic containment system, Op de Weegh said.

“However, during a final test, the containment dome aboard the Arctic Challenger barge was damaged,” she said.

Sources familiar with the testing said the mishap occurred when one of several clump weights was placed into about 160 feet of water to mark the area of a theoretical oil spill, to see if the containment dome aboard the barge could be lowered over it.

“When they came back to find it, it [the weight] was lost, submerged into the silt,” said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation.

Engineers launched a mini-submarine known as a Remotely Operated Vehicle, which is part of Shell’s plan for putting any oil spill containment equipment into place, to help get the oil containment dome carried aboard the Challenger set over the “leak.”

“They got some of the weights set to hold the dome, then one of the eight winches on the dome became inoperative,” the source said. “They attempted to discover what was wrong by using the ROV, and got it tangled in the anchor lines of the dome and it sank into the silt.”

Divers were then dispatched to the sea floor to try to recover the dome without damaging the high-tech umbilical that controls it, he said.

It was not clear how much damage the dome ultimately suffered, but it apparently was enough to prompt Shell to abandon its well-drilling plans for the current season.

One of my confidential sources at the test site that day reported to me:

I’ve got more information from a tugboat skipper who was there, but he doesn’t want me to print it. He’s the one, based on being able to listen to the encrypted radio chatter when they were all tangled up, that called it a “clusterfuck.”

He assured me that this crew isn’t ready for a water park, let alone the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas.

On October 10th, Sen. Mark Begich held a hearing in Anchorage:

The overflow crowd also heard specifics on what happened to a Shell oil spill response system damaged during testing.

With only weeks to go before Shell Alaska wraps up its first exploratory drilling offshore Alaska in two decades, key players told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that the work went well and Shell has done an exemplary job despite some glitches and setbacks.

When the hearing got to finding out what happened aboard the Arctic Challenger on September 16th, a strangely different story emerged on what happened in the accident:

The barge-based containment system, including a massive dome that would be lowered over an out-of-control well, is the first of its kind and was on fast track for completion, [Shell Oil Alaska Vice President Pete] Slaiby said. It only became part of Shell’s required oil spill response after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

Shell and Superior Energy Services, the contractor that owns and will operate the 38-year-old retrofitted barge, investigated how the dome was damaged during testing Sept. 15 off the coast of Washington state.

“Our investigation determined that a faulty electrical connection associated with one of the valves caused the valve to open, which caused the rapid descent and ultimate damage to the dome,” Slaiby told Begich.

Safety tethers prevented the dome from hitting bottom, he said. The dome was nowhere near the side of the barge and didn’t bang against it or hit anything else, Slaiby told reporters during a break in the hearing.

“But buoyancy chambers were damaged,” he said.

During the rapid descent, the water pressure “deformed the side of the dome itself,” he said. Shell and Superior are working together to improve the technical aspects of the system as well as procedures.

“The design concept, however, is solid,” Slaiby said in the hearing.

The oil spill containment barge is the fourth line of defense, he said. Crews would first try to stop a blowout with drilling mud, then turn to a blowout preventer already in place, then a capping stack, a special blowout preventer like what eventually stopped the oil from flowing from the Deepwater Horizon blowout.


The story as related to the LA Times in September, and Shell VP Slaiby’s testimony don’t match at all.  Nor does Slaiby’s account match with what I’ve been able to find out from informants.

Others are concerned too.  Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a Freedom of Information Act request directed toward BSEE on October 10th, immediately after the discrepancies between the post-accident story and Slaiby’s later testimony on the subject became apparent.   Here is PEER’s FOIA request in entirety, as mailed to me last week:

                                                                                    October 10, 2012

BSEE FOIA Officer

Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement

Ms. Debbie Kimball

Atrium Building; HE 2204

381 Elden Street

Herndon, VA 20170

RE: FOIA REQUEST                                                VIA E-MAIL, FAX & MAIL

Dear Ms. Kimball:

In mid-September, 2012, Royal Dutch Shell PLC (Shell) announced that its containment dome, said to incorporate all the lessons learned from capping the Deepwater Horizon spill, was severely damaged while being tested on Puget Sound.   Shell’s oil spill response barge, Arctic Challenger, carried the containment dome.

Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. 552, as amended, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) requests information concerning this incident, its significance, the role of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and what lessons were derived from it.  Specifically, we request the following:

  1. Any documents related to the failure of the containment dome test from the Shell spill response barge Arctic Challenger in Bellingham in  2012, including any after-incident alterations or adjustments that Shell proposes to make or has made;
  1. Any other deficiencies or compliance issues noted concerning the Arctic Challenger and the containment dome by any state or federal regulatory or marine conservation agency;
  1. Any after-incident analysis BSEE has performed following this containment dome failure;
  1. Information concerning the nature, timing and standards for future containment dome  testing or exercises, including the role played by BSEE personnel and the role, if any, for independent third-party monitoring or participation;
  1. Information regarding BSEE requirements or permit conditions relating to containment domes in permits issued to Shell during calendar year 2012; and
  1. Information relating to BSEE policies, standards or other requirement regarding the capacity or reliability of containment domes in spill response plans.

In a January 21, 2009 memo, President Barack Obama declared the following policy for the Executive Branch:

“The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption:  In the face of doubt, openness prevails.  The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.  Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve…  All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government.  The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.”

For any documents or portions of documents that you block release due to specific exemption(s) from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, please provide an index itemizing and describing the documents or portions of documents withheld.  The index should, pursuant to the holding of Vaughn v. Rosen (484 F.2d 820 [D.C. Cir. 1973] cert. denied, 415 U.S. 977 [1974]), provide a detailed justification for claiming a particular exemption that explains why each such exemption applies to the document or portion of a document withheld.

PEER requests that all fees be waived because “disclosure of the information is in the public interest . . . and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requestor” (5 U.S.C. 552 (a) (4)(A)):

1. The records concern the operations or activities of the Government.

The FOIA request is, by its terms, limited to identifiable activities of BSEE.

2. The disclosure of the requested records is likely to contribute to public understanding of these operations or activities.

The requested material concerns measures of the effectiveness of safety measures designed to contain or mitigate the enormous environmental damage from an oil spill in Arctic waters.  The requested information concerns a recent highly-publicized containment dome failure during routine testing, what lessons have been learned, countermeasures planned and the rigor of BSEE regulation in this area.  All of this information would greatly enhance public understanding of how BSEE is, or is not, fulfilling its core mission.

3. The release of requested records will contribute significantly to public understanding of the governmental activities

The nature of the information will shed direct light on the quality and extent of spill response measures required by BSEE and how those requirements are enforced.  These documents will help the public to understand the reliability of spill containment equipment slated for deployment in sensitive Arctic waters.

PEER believes that the disclosure of the requested information will offer the general public a clear picture of the rigor, prudence and efficacy of BSEE actions and policies on the single greatest challenge facing the agency since its creation

PEER intends to provide the requested information to the general public through —

  • Ø Release to the news media;
  • Ø Posting on the PEER web page which draws between 1,000 and 10,000 viewers per day; and
  • Ø Publication in PEER’s newsletter that has a circulation of approximately 20,000, including 1,500 environmental journalists.

Through these methods, PEER generates an average of 1.5 mainstream news articles per day.  Moreover, PEER has demonstrated the ability to generate nationwide news coverage concerning related BSEE activities.  Moreover, as noted above, the Shell dome failure at the heart of this request has generated national and international media interest.

4. Disclosure would not serve a commercial interest of the requestor.

Disclosure is in no way connected with any commercial interest of the requestors in that PEER is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest organization concerned with upholding the public trust through responsible management of our nation’s resources and with supporting professional integrity within public land management and pollution control agencies.  To that end, PEER is designated as a tax-exempt organization under section 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue code.

If you have any questions about this FOIA request, please contact me at (202) 265-PEER. I look forward to receiving the agency’s final response within 20 working days.

Cordially,

Jeff Ruch

Executive Director

Cc. BSEE Alaska Regional FOIA Coordinator

The Arctic Challenger itself has now been certified as seaworthy by the USCG.  Shell’s drilling rigs Kuluk and Noble Discoverer are drilling in the Arctic as I write:

At Begich’s October hearing, Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, the commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska said:

“You’re talking about a first-of-kind vessel that in less than six months they took a Arctic class barge … perfectly flat, half the size of a football field, and built an entire production facility on it, berthing for 70 people, and the ability to raise and lower a dome above a loss-of-well control that allowed them to … flare gas, process oil and clean the water and put it back in the ocean.”

The Coast Guard, which earlier had identified a number of issues with the vessel that had to be addressed, just issued a certificate of inspection for the barge, clearing it to operate at sea. The American Bureau of Shipping has classified the unique barge as well. The issues are all normal evolution for a new vessel, Ostebo said. Nothing really went wrong, he said.

David Hayes, deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, said that Shell is complying with regulations that he called the government’s “gold standard for safe and environmentally sound exploration activities.”

Shell’s two drilling rigs are still at work drilling the time-consuming initial stages of wells. The Noble Discoverer is 70 miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea, and the Kulluk is offshore, but not as far out, in the Beaufort Sea.

Each are excavating cellars to hold a blowout preventer and drilling holes some 1,500 feet down as the first stage of a well. Slaiby said they will return to finish those wells and more next year.

I’m a lot more skeptical about how ready for an emergency this operation really is than is Admiral Ostebo.