Troubled Oil Rig in Alaska Reaches Safer Waters

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A week after it ran aground along a rocky shoreline in the Gulf of Alaska, a Shell Oil drilling rig was refloated and towed to safer water for inspection, officials said Monday.

Sean Churchfield, operations manager for Shell Alaska and a member of the response team that includes representatives from Shell, the Coast Guard and Alaska's environmental agency, said the rig was refloated late Sunday night and arrived in Kiliuda Bay, a sheltered area on Kodiak Island about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, on Monday morning.

The calmer waters will enable the rig, the Kulluk, to be inspected above and below the waterline. The next step depends on the extent of the damage; one possibility is that the rig would be towed to Seattle for repairs.

The 266-foot-diameter Kulluk, one of two rigs that Shell is using in its ambitious effort to open Arctic waters to oil production, was en route to Seattle late last month when it ran aground on Sitkalidak Island after its tow ship lost power. The rig has no propulsion system.

The Kulluk remained upright and stable during the six days it sat in 25 feet of water about 350 yards offshore, and there was no sign of leakage of any of the 150,000 gallons of fuel and lubricating oil aboard.

The towing operation began Sunday afternoon, when salvage crews attached a line between the rig and its tow ship, the Aiviq. Then shortly after 10 p.m., near high tide, the Aiviq pulled the rig from the spot where it had been marooned. The Aiviq, accompanied by tugs, a Coast Guard ship and oil spill response vessels, towed the Kulluk about 50 miles north. The trip took 12 hours, Mr. Churchfield said.

Monitoring equipment showed there was no discharge of pollutants from the rig during the tow, said Steven Russell of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, a member of the response team.

Capt. Paul Mehler III of the Coast Guard, the head of the response team, said getting the Kulluk to safer waters was a major milestone. "I wouldn't say I saw anyone high-fiving," said Captain Mehler, who was nearby aboard a Coast Guard ship when the Kulluk became unstuck. "But there certainly was a sense of relief."

After drilling test wells off the North Slope of Alaska in 2012, the Kulluk and Shell's second rig were expected to return to the Arctic this year. But the grounding and several other episodes last year have raised questions about the company's drilling plans in the region.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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