The man who oversaw equipment connecting Shell Oil's Arctic drill rig to her tugboat detailed his job execution for marine casualty investigators, Tuesday, the seventh day of hearings into the grounding of the Kulluk off Sitkalidak Island, in the Gulf of Alaska, last December.
William Hebert, the rig coordinator for Louisiana-based subsea contractor Delmar, explained his company's responsibilities involving the oil drill -- its mooring and unmooring -- and detailed steps his company undertook in preparation for the Kulluk's movements, up to the Arctic and back south, in Shell's maiden U.S. Arctic drilling season.
Hebert said it was his crew that connected the Kulluk to the tow line of the Aiviq, the Edison Chouest-designed tug in charge of moving the drill rig, both in June and in December of last year.
While preparing for the Kulluk's movement up into Arctic waters, Hebert was told to make some modifications that were not recorded in the rig's tow plan. Last June, tow master Marc Dial instructed Hebert to replace an 85-ton-certified shackle -- a U-shaped piece of metal that secured the Kulluk tow plate to its towline -- with one certified for a 120-ton load. Hebert went on to outline for investigators a series of other changes he was instructed to complete for that maiden tow between the Kulluk and Aiviq. He lengthened the pennant wire that connected the shackle and towline from 40 feet to 100 feet, he said, in order to prevent strain on the rest of the line.
Investigators pressed Hebert on where he found the shackles. He told them in a box in the Seattle shipyard. Stamped on the shackles was “120 T” and a serial number. By all accounts, the shackles looked new, Hebert told investigators, with no rust or signs of wear.
While the changes were made to the components, there was no update to the Kulluk's tow plan, though, which called for shackles rated to 85 tons, according to previous testimony.
The 120-ton shackle ended up towing the Kulluk thousands of miles, all season, last year: from Seattle to Deadhorse on Alaska’s North Slope to commence exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea, and then back to Dutch Harbor afterward.
The shackle failed on Dec. 27, an event that ultimately led to the grounding of the oil-drilling rig in the Kodiak archipelago, just hours before the new year, and contributed to Shell's decision to suspend its Arctic exploration off Alaska's coast for this year.
Hebert was the only testimony Tuesday. Capt. John Beckert, another member of the tow plan chain of command, was unable to testify due to a family emergency. Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler, who served as the federal on-scene coordinator during the salvage of the Kulluk, will testify Wednesday.
The marine casualty hearing is being conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard and led by Cmdr. Josh McTaggart. Investigators from the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Engineering, the Marshall Islands (the flag state of the Kulluk) and lawyers are dissecting the Kulluk grounding in hopes of uncovering what went wrong, and why. Any recommendations will be passed on to Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, who will decide whether to make changes to regulations or pursue criminal charges.
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com