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Contractor: Tow shackle between Shell's Arctic drill rig, tug failed

Suzanna Caldwell
Curtis Smith, spokesperson for Shell Oil. June 1, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The anchor-handling vessel, the Alert, tows the drilling unit Kulluk to a safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay, Alaska on Jan. 7, 2013. Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.
US Coast Guard photo
Shell Oil's Kulluk platform, in Seattle, May 25, 2012.
Courtesy Senator Begich's office
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
Shell's Aiviq support vessel in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay.
Courtesy Shell
Shell Oil Alaska vice president Pete Slaiby listens to David Hayes, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, speaking at the Arctic Imperative Summit. August 26, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Royal Dutch Shell has already begun studying land and sea features to determine the best route and depth to place at least 400 miles of pipelines that can carry crude oil to the trans-Alaska pipeline. The company is considering several options across a wide swath of ocean and tundra. This map was created to provide a general idea of the direction those pipelines will take.
Aaron Jansen illustration
The Kulluk drill rig near Sitkalidak Island off Kodiak
USCG photo
The Shell drilling vessel Noble Discoverer came close to shore in Unalaska on Saturday, July 14.
Kristjan B. Laxfoss photo
The Kulluk drill rig off Kodiak Island on Jan. 2, 2013
USCG photo
Shell Oil's 514-foot drill ship Noble Discoverer sits 68 miles west of Nome on Aug. 29, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Shell Oil's drill rig Kulluk, grounded off Kodiak Island by an Arctic storm it was supposed to be built to withstand
Shell Oil's exploratory drilling platform departs Seattle for Alaska on June 27, 2012.
Courtesy Vigor Industrial
Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship, the Kulluk, grounded at remote Sitkalidak Island in Alaska on Jan. 1, 2013.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis footage
The Arctic Challenger was occupied by Caspian terns while docked in Southern California in 2007.
John Potter / California DFG
Waves crash over the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, Jan. 1, 2013.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The Arctic Challenger, a barge Royal Dutch Shell is renovating to use in Arctic drilling operations.
Courtesy Shell Oil
Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, 17th Coast Guard District commander, Capt. Paul Mehler, federal on-scene coordinator for the Kulluk mishap, and Sean Churchfield, Shell’s incident commander, discuss the situation with Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Jan. 1, 2013.
USGS Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Schofield photo
The Arctic Challenger with the newly redesigned and repaired Containment Dome move away from the Port of Bellingham, Wash. on Dec. 12. The challenger had been moored since returning in September 2012 after a catastrophic failure of the first iteration of their containment process.
TJ Guiton photo
Approximate location where Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship Kulluk grounded on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska.
Coast Guard photo via Ground Trekking Truth
A night shot of the workers and equipment showing a markedly armored containment dome to replace the one which suffered a catastrophic failure in September 2012 during the initial testing process in calm, predictable conditions in the Salish Sea off of Anacortes, WA. Note the lateral ribs surrounding the upper portion of the dome as well as the outer steel plates to protect the dome from damage and enhance the strength of the structure to the pressures of ocean depths.
TJ Guiton
Ocean Bay on Sitkalidak Island in Alaska, located close to Kodiak Island's southeast shore.
Stacy Studebaker, Kodiak Audubon Society photo
Shell Oil tests their "capping stack" in Everett, Washington on June 25, 2012.
Courtesy Shell Oil
The west end of Sitkalidak Island's shore Ocean Beach, where shoals are visible beneath the waves. Sitkalidak Island is located near Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Creative Commons photo via Ground Truth Trekking
Shell Oil's spill response gear staged in Wainwright. Summer 2011.
Ben Anderson photo
A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew evacuates 18 crewmen from Shell Oil's drilling ship Kulluk in 15 to 20-foot seas, 80 miles southwest of Kodiak, Alaska, on Dec. 29, 2012.
Coast Guard photo
Greenpeace boat crew protest at Shell drill ship Noble Discoverer anchored near Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Alaska. August 5, 2012
Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace
A Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircraft from Air Station Kodiak overflies the tugs Aiviq and Nanuq tandem towing the mobile drilling unit Kulluk 116 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012. The tug Alert from Prince William Sound and the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley from Kodiak are en route to assist.
US Coast Guard photo
Fennica, a Finnish icebreaker contracted to Shell's Arctic project, in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
Royal Dutch Shell's Kulluk drillship in the Beaufort Sea in fall 2012.
Royal Dutch Shell photo

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. 

Shackle: Failure

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.

RELATED: TRIALS OF SHELL'S TROUBLED ARCTIC DRILL, THE KULLUK

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