Back on July 27th, when I first started covering aspects of Shell Alaska’s plans to begin offshore drilling off our coasts up here, I already had questions. That day, I wrote, reminiscing about what I knew of the spill response barge Arctic Challenger back in 1982 :
Crew members of towing tugs had been injured over the five years since the barge’s completion, and it was not considered to be a “good luck” barge in fleet scuttlebutt. It never really found a niche after the Sealifts were over. It languished, being shuttled from Seattle to the Gulf of Mexico to Coos Bay, Oregon, where it stayed for a long time.
The next week I went to Bellingham harbor, where the barge was being outfitted with a new, untried piece of equipment. Shell didn’t answer my calls for an appointment request, so I showed up at 7:45 am at the security office, and managed to get inside two layers of security before a gatekeeper decided I had the look of somebody who might be asking too many questions. He was right.
Shell refused to let me photograph or even view the work being done on the Challenger and its containment dome apparatus. Instead:
[The project director] flatly told me “No,” and I was not allowed to take any photographs of the vessel. He assured me that Shell Oil will be contacting me soon with more information.
The ambience of the work place there reminded me very much of projects in the past where I have worked that are seriously behind schedule and nervous of potential outcomes.
I was followed by private police until I left Bellingham.
Although Shell wasn’t ready to share their work with me, it proved impossible to hide either the vessel’s dismal history or its shortcomings from the public. Longtime Alaska reporter, Alex De Marban, wrote in mid-August, that in 2007, while rusting away in Long Beach, California harbor, the Arctic Challenger attracted so many birds, it was temporarily declared a “bird sanctuary” for Caspian terns:
At one point, hundreds of Caspian terns, gulls, cormorants, pelicans, ravens, crows and even an owl turned the 300-foot barge into a giant’s bird nest, coating the deck with bird dung and other gunk. That was in California’s Long Beach Harbor in 2007, where the downtrodden vessel became a bit of a media celebrity as wildlife regulators raced to save the protected terns and their chicks.
The Kulluk grounding Unified Command released information Saturday morning that all but indicates there will be an attempt to extricate the stranded drilling rig from the beach of Sitkalidak Island sometime today or tonight:
ANCHORAGE, AK – Unified Command (UC) today plans to hook a main tow line to the Kulluk to test capabilities in preparation for recovery operations of the drilling unit. This plan will depend heavily on weather and tidal considerations.
The UC also plans to deploy boom, as a precautionary measure, to Kodiak Island, with special attention being paid to salmon streams connecting to Ocean Bay.
Unified Command has developed a wildlife protection plan to be used in the event that wildlife in the area is impacted during the recovery. They have activated International Bird Rescue to assist in bird rescue programs should their expertise be required. In addition, Protected Species Observers are being deployed on-scene.
As previously stated, all plans rely on weather and tidal conditions.
The Kulluk remains upright and stable with no reports of sheen in the vicinity. Salvage teams conducted an additional survey confirming all fuel tanks remain intact. Throughout all operations the safety of the responders will continue to be the top priority.
The map above is one I created, showing the situation as of 1300 hrs. AKST today. I added the position of the Kulluk, as it does not have an active transponder.
The vessels shown on the map are:
1. The Alert, a state-of-ste art tug, owned by Crowley Maritime, under contract to Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, as a required Prince William Sound (PWS) response vessel for tankers transiting the PWS area. It was the tug that was ordered to release the Kulluk during the storm on New Years Eve. It is equipped with a very high quality and capable winch system.
2. U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley, the USCG’s main Alaska asset for ocean emergencies. It is most likely serving as the Unified Command’s local HQ for any attempt to extricate the rig.
3. Pt. Oliktok, is a Seward-based small tug. Built for Crowley in 1981-82, (I helped register its original compass on Elliot Bay in Seattle, in July, 1982). It is shallow draft, with reinforced bottom, and might be helpful near shore.
4. The Warrior, an old tug of Crowley’s 9,000 HP class, built in the late 1970s, mostly for barge towing between Seattle and Whittier, Alaska. Currently based in Seward. A tried and reliable design, but with older towing equipment.
5. The Nanuq, a new oil rig service vessel, with large deck space and towing equipment that was shown to be inadequate last week.
6. The Arctic Responder 2, a small Dutch Harbor-based oil spill response vessel, with very small deck space and no towing capability. Probably to be used as a shuttle, should seas get very calm.
7. The Perseverance, a supply vessel, whose role I’m unsure of.
8. The Aiviq, the new tug built last year specifically for Shell’s Arctic operations, and whose design, performance and towing equipment are coming under increasing scrutiny. Not to mention the political role its builder plays in Alaska oil politics.
You can go to this URL and watch the movements of the vessels named above. In the 50 minutes since I took the screenshot, the Arctic Responder 2 and Nanuq have closed upon the Kulluk.
High tide will be around 6:53 pm local time. At 8.2 feet, it is classified as a “holdup” tide. Under normal circumstances, this would not be quite enough water to pull a wreck off a beach where it had just a few days ago been pounded by 20 to 30-foot seas.
I’ve pulled two valuable books from my library, thinking about how I might do this job: Edward M. Brady’s Tugs, Towboats and Towing; and the same author’s Marine Salvage Operations. I hate to say it, but these guys – today – are breaking more than a few rules.
Questions have arisen over the past few days over the fact that the towing winch on the Aiviq might not have been of a strength and sophistication to meet the specifications of the agreement that Shell had signed on to with the Federal government to proceed with the 2012 season. More on that later. Until then:
FYI, I’ve just confirmed from Unified Command that the tug Aiviq does NOT have Best Available Technology (BAT) towing winch, which is a dynamic tensioning Markey Automatic Render & Recovery (AR&R) towing winch. I will attach the PWS RCAC Aug. 2012 towing technology expert report, which discusses the BAT section on p.4 the following:
I believe Shell was required to have BAT in all its operations, and one would think that it would have outfitted its new $200 million purpose-built tug with the best towing winch possible. This may have contributed to the repeated loss of tow.
Meanwhile, let’s hope the pressure from Shell on the USCG and the various parties contracted to pull this removal off this evening doesn’t get anyone killed.
Update – 2:45 pm AKST: During Unified Command Press Conference, now winding down, Shell Alaska posted this youtube of their plan for what they will do if they get it off the beach:
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