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ANCHORAGE, Alaska – High seas and strong winds prevented crews from boarding an oil drilling ship to check for any damage after the large vessel went aground off an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska.
A Coast Guard plane and a helicopter flew over the Kulluk on Tuesday, but severe weather did not permit putting marine experts on board the drilling rig, which had grounded on a sand and gravel beach in stormy seas.
Federal on-scene response coordinator Capt. Paul Mehler said the Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig is carrying about 143,000 gallons of diesel and about 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid, and appeared stable.
"There is no sign of a release of any product," Mehler said during a news conference.
A team of company, Coast Guard and local officials said they were mobilizing spill response equipment and preparing a plan in the event of a spill in the Partition Cove and Ocean Bay areas of the island. The area is home to at least two endangered species, as well as harbor seals, salmon, and sea lions.
The storm eased Tuesday, with gusts up to 35 mph and waves up to 30 feet high, and similar conditions were expected Wednesday. Officials were hoping to get marine experts onboard to take photos and videos, and then come up with a more complete salvage plan once weather permits.
The goal was to get salvagers aboard the Kulluk and the ship refloated, Mehler said.
Mehler said a team of about 500 people was working on a plan, "with many more coming."
A Shell official said the drilling rig was built with a double-sided hull of reinforced steel that is 3 inches thick. It recently had undergone $292 million in improvements before being put into service for a short time this summer in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast.
It was being towed to Seattle for maintenance last week when it separated from a towing vessel south of Kodiak Island. Repeated attempts to maintain towing lines were unsuccessful as a severe storm passed through the area. By Monday night, tow boats guided the rig to a place where it would cause the least environmental damage and cut it loose. It grounded off the southeast side of uninhabited Sitkalidak Island, which is near the larger Kodiak Island in the gulf.
U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, expressed his concerns in a statement Tuesday.
"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."
Sean Churchfield, operations manager for Shell Alaska, said once the situation is under control, an investigation will be conducted into the cause. He did not know whether the findings would be made public.
The Coast Guard said it would be investigating and would make its findings public.