Coast Guard to take testimony on Shell grounding

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - The Coast Guard will kick off hearings Monday on how a Royal Dutch Shell PLC drill barge used for Arctic Ocean exploratory drilling ended up aground off a remote Alaska island.

The Kulluk was under tow and bound from the Aleutian Islands' Dutch Harbor to a Seattle shipyard when it ran into rough Gulf of Alaska water. It broke from its towing vessel, and after four days of futile attempted hookups, ran aground New Year's Eve in shallow water off Sitkalidak Island, near Kodiak Island.

Damage to the ship led to Shell's decision not to drill in Arctic waters in 2013.

The Coast Guard marine casualty investigation hearing will begin with testimony from a representative of Offshore Rig Movers International, an association of independent marine contractors. Representatives of Shell, rig operator Noble Corp., and Edison Chouest Offshore, the tow vessel operator, are scheduled to testify, as are Coast Guard personnel who assisted with recovery efforts.

A Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosely, said the hearing could last two weeks.

The Kulluk is a 266-foot diameter drilling barge built in 1983 for a Canadian company. Shell bought the vessel in 2005.

It has a funnel-shape, reinforced steel hull designed to operate in ice. The vessel's most prominent feature is a 160-foot derrick centered in the round vessel.

The Kulluk last year worked in the Beaufort Sea east of Barrow during the short open water season. Shell's inability to obtain certification for a spill response barge kept the Kulluk and Shell's second drill vessel, the Noble Discoverer, which operated in the Chukchi Sea, from drilling into petroleum-bearing formations. The Interior Department instead authorized the vessels to perform top hole work, a preliminary step in exploratory drilling.

Few details of how the Kulluk broke loose were released as events unfolded in late December.

The Kulluk was under tow by the Aiviq, a 360-foot anchor handler, on Dec. 27 when a tow line or an attachment broke. A day later, all four engines on the Aiviq failed, possibly due to contaminated fuel.

The vessel's crew eventually regained power but subsequent tow lines attached by the Aiviq or other vessels also failed.

On Dec. 31, the vessel was attached to the Aiviq and a Valdez-based tugboat, the Alert. In winds approaching 70 mph and swells up to 35 feet, the line to the Aiviq snapped again. An incident command center ordered the Alert crew members to guide the Kulluk as best they could to a grounding site that would cause the least environmental damage.

No petroleum was spilled as the vessel ran aground.

The Aivik on Jan. 6 pulled the Kulluk off the rocky bottom and towed it to protected waters in Kodiak Island's Kiliuda Bay. It's since been loaded onto a lift ship and taken to Singapore for repair.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, part of the Interior Department, and the National Transportation Safety Board will also participate.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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