ANCHORAGE, Alaska – An overnight Coast Guard flight over an Alaska drilling rig that ran aground in shallow water off a small island on New Year's Eve found no signs of a fuel spill.
But officials at a unified command center run by the Coast Guard, Royal Dutch Shell PLC, state responders and others said they'll have to wait until daylight to know for sure what environmental impact the grounding might have caused.
The Kulluk grounded Monday night on rocks off the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska.
The North Pacific storm that has caused problems for Shell's efforts to move the drill into place near Kodiak Island is expected to continue Tuesday, at a slightly milder intensity, said spokeswoman Darci Sinclair.
The storm has included winds gusting near 70 mph and swells to 35 feet and the forecast calls for winds to drop to gusts of up to 40 mph with swells up to 20 feet.
"They're planning additional overflights, weather permitting, during daylight hours," Sinclair said about two hours before sunrise in Alaska.
U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who is the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, issued a statement Tuesday expressing his concerns about the Kulluk situation.
"Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies," Markey said. "Drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment."
The Kulluk was being towed by a 360-foot anchor handler, the Aiviq, and a tugboat, the Alert. The vessels were moving north along Kodiak Island, trying to escape the worst of the storm. Sitkalidak is on the southeast side of Kodiak Island.
About 4:15 p.m., the drill ship separated from the Aiviq about 10 to 15 miles off shore and grounding was inevitable, Coast Guard Cmdr. Shane Montoya, the acting federal on-scene coordinator, told reporters.
"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 instructed the nine tug crew members to guide the drill ship to a 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 Sitkalidak.
"The Alert was not able to do anything as far as towing the Kulluk but tried to maintain some kind of control," 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, 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 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 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. Its ice-reinforced, funnel-shape hull can deflect moving ice downward and break it into 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. It was carrying a skeleton crew of 17 as it was towed by the Aiviq from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands to Seattle for maintenance. The tow line broke at a shackle attached to one of the vessels.
"It was new. It was inspected before it left Dutch, but it broke," said Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith.
Before a line could be reattached, the Aiviq's engines failed, possibly from contaminated fuel. The Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley attempted to secure the drifting drill ship but that line failed and wrapped itself around one of the cutter's propellers, requiring the cutter to return to Kodiak on one propeller.
With bad weather predicted, the Kulluk's crew was evacuated Saturday. They hooked up emergency tow lines and left them trailing behind the vessel in case they were needed.
The Aiviq, with its engines restored, and a tug re-established lines to the drill ship, but lines broke Sunday. During a lull in the storm early Monday, the crew of Alert grabbed the original 400-foot line trailing the drill ship and later the Aiviq grappled aboard one of the emergency lines.