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Crews continue trips to grounded Shell drill rig, vessels build up to assist

Ben Anderson
Ocean Bay on Sitkalidak Island in Alaska, located close to Kodiak Island's southeast shore.
Stacy Studebaker, Kodiak Audubon Society photo
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
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 tests their "capping stack" in Everett, Washington on June 25, 2012.
Courtesy Shell Oil
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
Shell Oil's spill response gear staged in Wainwright. Summer 2011.
Ben Anderson photo
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
Greenpeace boat crew protest at Shell drill ship Noble Discoverer anchored near Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Alaska. August 5, 2012
Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace
Royal Dutch Shell's Kulluk drillship in the Beaufort Sea in fall 2012.
Royal Dutch Shell photo
Fennica, a Finnish icebreaker contracted to Shell's Arctic project, in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Shell photo
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
The Kulluk drill rig near Sitkalidak Island off Kodiak
USCG 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 off Kodiak Island on Jan. 2, 2013
USCG photo
The Shell drilling vessel Noble Discoverer came close to shore in Unalaska on Saturday, July 14.
Kristjan B. Laxfoss 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 514-foot drill ship Noble Discoverer sits 68 miles west of Nome on Aug. 29, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
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
Shell Oil's exploratory drilling platform departs Seattle for Alaska on June 27, 2012.
Courtesy Vigor Industrial
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 was occupied by Caspian terns while docked in Southern California in 2007.
John Potter / California DFG
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, a barge Royal Dutch Shell is renovating to use in Arctic drilling operations.
Courtesy Shell Oil
Approximate location where Royal Dutch Shell's drilling ship Kulluk grounded on Sitkalidak Island, Alaska.
Coast Guard photo via Ground Trekking Truth
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

Helicopters and aircraft buzzed around the grounded Royal Dutch Shell drill rig Kulluk on Friday like bees around a hive, but there were few significant developments as authorities continued to work on a possible salvage plan for the 266-foot offshore drilling unit.

It was the fourth full day that the Kulluk had been stranded on the shore of Sitkalidak Island, near the larger Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. The Kulluk ran aground on New Year's eve after a multi-day effort to tow it further from landfall in high, stormy seas.

After salvage crews boarded the vessel on Wednesday and Thursday, looking for any damage and in particular any breaches in the drill rig's reinforced steel hull, the Coast Guard reported that salvage crews had again been delivered to the Kulluk on Friday. The Coast Guard said that the team is "providing critical information in support of development of a final recovery plan."

The team reported on Thursday that the hull of the Kulluk appeared to remain intact, keeping the potentially 150,000 gallons of fuel the rig carries from leaking into nearby waters. Oil containment booms were delivered to the community of Old Harbor, the village nearest to the Kulluk, as a precaution.

Additionally, vessels continued to arrive in the area to assist with whatever salvage effort moves ahead -- whenever that might be. 

"On-water, 14 vessels have been mobilized to support the response and recovery," said a statement from the Unified Command -- a cooperative agency consisting of the Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Shell and Noble Corporation, which owns the Kulluk -- in charge of the Kulluk response effort. "Three of these vessels are on location, with the other 11 either en route or on standby at nearby ports and harbors."

That included the Shell tow vessels Nanuq and Aiviq, which had been stationed in Kodiak Harbor until Friday afternoon, when they pulled away. Where they were going -- or whether they'd just been anchored elsewhere -- was unknown. More vessels were also reportedly on the way from Seattle and expected to arrive by this weekend.

In addition to staging more equipment and delivering the salvage team, another helicopter flight also carried biologists, examining the wildlife in the region for any possible environmental impacts.

There were a couple of bright spots in the midst of the crisis, the first being the news that the Kulluk's fuel tanks -- located on one side of the rig -- were facing out to sea and not bumping against the rocky bottom where shore meets ocean. And the weather for Friday was calmer and expected to remain that way through Sunday night, with moderate winds and seas wobbling around 10 feet. 

There were no indications that the situation would be resolved in the near future, though things may move quickly once a final plan is put in place. For now, the Kulluk continues to sway in the shallow waters on the shore of Sitkalidak Island.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com