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FAA restricts air zone around grounded Shell Oil drilling rig off Alaska coast (+MAP)

Suzanna Caldwell

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Salvage crews hoped to board the grounded drill rig Kulluk on Wednesday to better assess damage to the beached vessel, but bad weather remained a factor.

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Coast Guard flyovers are planned for Wednesday over the Royal Dutch Shell conical drilling unit, which grounded off of Sitkalidak Island near southwestern Kodiak Island on Dec. 31. Those crews will determine whether it is safe to deploy a team onto the Kulluk to further evaluate the condition of the rig, which ran aground late Monday night.

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No hull breaches were reported Tuesday. The Kulluk is carrying an estimated 136,000 gallons of diesel fuel and about 10,000 gallons of various lubes and oils according to the latest numbers from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.


View Location of the Shell Oil drill rig, the Kulluk in a larger map

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Hurricane-like weather has hampered operations in the region. On Tuesday, the Coast Guard sent two crews to the Kulluk, but were unable to lower them onto the vessel, which is still upright and stable according to a statement from the Unified Command, the operation in charge of salvaging the Kulluk.

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While that weather is expected to ease slightly on Wednesday, it's still raging. Winds to 40 mph are expected, coupled with 10-foot seas due to build to 14 feet later in the day.

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The Federal Aviation Administration instituted a temporary flight restriction and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley is maintaining a safety zone of 1 nautical mile around the Kulluk Wednesday morning. Both restrictions were put in place to ensure the safety of response personnel, as well as mariners and aviators in the area, according to the Unified Command.

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The Kulluk’s troubles started Dec. 27, when a tow shackle failed between the drilling rig and its tug, Shell's Aiviq. A second towline was attached, but later the engines on the Aiviq failed, leaving the two vessels adrift at sea. The 266-foot diameter Kulluk has no propulsion system of its own. 

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Over the next several days, more tugs were called in from across Alaska, but all struggled to hold on to the Kulluk. By Monday, rough seas and more problems forced a tug crew to let go of the Kulluk, sending it drifting into the rocky shoreline of Sitkalidak Island.

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Shell has invested more than $4.5 billion since the mid-2000s in a quest to reignite a controversial Arctic drilling program that it started in the 1980s. And the ultimate outcome of the Kulluk incident could have broader implications for national energy policy. The Kulluk was one week into a three-to-four-week journey from Dutch Harbor to port in Washington state. There, the rig was expected to undergo routine maintenance in an effort to prepare for the 2013 drilling season.

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Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com