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Coast Guard inspection turns up safety issues on ill-fated Noble Discoverer

Ben Anderson
U.S. Coast Guard photo

Royal Dutch Shell’s Noble Discoverer -- a 571-foot vessel integral to the company’s Arctic oil drilling aspirations -- has been held up in Seward for several weeks to address what the Coast Guard described as  “pretty serious” issues with the ship’s safety and pollution- prevention systems.

According to Petty Officer Kip Wadlow, a spokesman with the Coast Guard in Juneau, the Noble Discoverer was put under what’s known as “port state control detention” on Nov. 29 when the drill ship was towed into Seward, thanks to a problem with its propulsion system. 

Wadlow said that Coast Guard inspectors boarded the ship to determine what went wrong. “While inspectors were on board the ship, they noticed several pretty serious crew safety and pollution-prevention system issues,” he said.

By Dec. 19, the Noble Discoverer was cleared to leave Seward after the most serious issues were addressed. It won’t, however, travel under its own power to Seattle, where further repairs can take place. A tow vessel will take the ship to port.

According to Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith, the Noble Discoverer may have damaged to a propeller shaft during its trip from the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians Islands. En route from Dutch Harbor to Seward, Smith said the ship developed a “propeller vibration,” which is when a tug arrived to tow the vessel to port. Coast Guard inspectors noticed the other problems during their inspection.

“For our part, we have supported Noble (Corporation) in swiftly addressing the items identified in the Coast Guard inspection,” Smith said in an email. “Of the 16 items noted, six have been closed and 10 will be completed in a west coast shipyard in the offseason.  Many of these items were already planned for the Discoverer's post-season maintenance schedule.”

Neither the Coast Guard nor the Noble company were able to comment on the specifics of the problems identified during the Coast Guard inspection, due to the ongoing investigation into the issues.

In a press release, Noble mentioned that the ship may have also had a problem with “possible unauthorized collected water discharges” outside of the drilling window. “The most important thing is that it was not during the drilling,” said John Breed, spokesman with Noble.

He added that ships of all types have water that’s collected aboard during the course of operations, but Noble and the Coast Guard were both working to determine if there may have been any unauthorized discharges from the Noble Discoverer.

The Noble Discoverer has had its fair share of problems since it first left port bound for the Alaska Arctic, where a short drilling window caused by persistent sea ice limited Shell’s big ambitions in 2012. In July, the ship drifted very close to shore in Unalaska after apparently dragging anchor. In mid-November, the vessel had an incident similar to a car backfiring, when it belched smoke and a loud boom emanated from its rig stack.

Wadlow said that the Noble Discoverer was “already on (the Coast Guard’s) radar” following that brief fire, which led to the inspection in Seward after an issue arose with the propulsion system.

“Being a regulatory agency, our primary concern is ensuring that we’re looking out for mariners at sea,” Wadlow said of the recent Seward inspection. “(The issues discovered) were serious enough that we determined the vessel would remain in Seward until they could be addressed.”

Smith said that the vessel would be further repaired in Washington state during the winter, and the company fully expects the Noble Discoverer to be operational for the 2013 drilling seaason. He noted that the ship had passed all necessary inspections prior to departing for the Arctic.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com