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Many Questions Remain As Coast Guard Probe Continues

By | May 21, 2013 - 9:53 am

The Kulluk remains grounded and upright with no evidence of sheen in the vicinity on Friday, Jan. 4. The rig grounded in high seas and strong winds Dec. 31, 2012, and a full-scale response and recovery involving the U. S. Coast Guard, Shell, the State of Alaska, local governments and private contractors has been underway since then. Photo by Judy Patrick

The Kulluk remains grounded and upright with no evidence of sheen in the vicinity
on Friday, Jan. 4. The rig grounded in high seas and strong winds Dec. 31, 2012, and a full-scale response and recovery involving the U. S. Coast Guard, Shell, the State of Alaska, local governments and private contractors has been underway since then. Photo by Judy Patrick

Many questions remain after the first day of a week-long Coast Guard probe of the grounding of the drilling rig Kulluk last New Year’s Eve on an island south of Kodiak.

Tuesday, Mark Dial, an executive of Offshore Rig Movers International, will testify on what happened as the rig broke loose while under tow from Dutch Harbor.

kulluk-incident-mapOn Monday, Coast Guard Commander Josh McTaggart questioned Norman Custard, the Shell emergency response executive who took charge and ordered the evacuation of the 18 crew members on the circular 266-foot platform.

Custard described days of attempts to regain control as the weather improved and then worsened again.  Eventually, one tug, the “Alert,” was left connected to the rig, and it was not succeeding in diverting it enough to make it to safe harbor.  Custard said they were reaching a decision “trigger point,” and he simply had to give the order to let the Kulluk go aground.

The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay. Photo courtesy of Shell Alaska.

The drilling unit Kulluk, towed by the anchor-handling vessel Aiviq, heads to its safe harbor location in Kiliuda Bay. Photo courtesy of Shell Alaska.

“That  just further told me that we’re walking a very precarious line, as far as, we have a tug vessel that is pushing as hard as they can, and a propulsion plant to no avail, the Kulluk is dragging it in towards the beach,” Custard said. “We were now well within seven miles, getting closer to the three-mile range.”

“My concern was, like I said, it came down to the safety of those members that were on the eh on the Alert”

Some of Custard’s toughest questioning came from Susan Dwarnick, Offshore Safety head of the former MMS – the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.  She wanted to know about the towing plan.

Custard, a seasoned former Coast Guard commander, had already testified that he had closely examined and signed off on the plan, but Dwarnick wanted to know if the rescue component of that plan really had taken into account the unusual size and shape of the rig being towed.

Dwarnick: At what point during the incident did you become aware, or, you know, the light bulb came on, that evacuation from the Kulluk, primarily due to the relatively unique shape of the Kulluk, was going to be…higher complexity?  Than average? When did it dawn on you?

Custard: It became clear after eh, when the tow, when we first first lost eh the connection with the Kulluk, we started to work on, review the evacuation plan.  Because there were still standard evacuation plans on the Kulluk.  But as far as the complexities, as far as the motion and how serious this is going to be, it wasn’t until the following day, when the Kulluk lost its propulsion plant and it was getting set, and the plant was starting to get a little lively, as we are having discussion.  Okay, can we lower the boats, what are the risks of lowering the lifeboats, doing an aviation evacuation, things like that. So that’s when it really, I became keenly aware of exactly how difficult this was going to be.”

But Custard also pointed out that the rig had been repeatedly towed with no problems.  And that towing can always be a delicate process.

“I’d  have to every tow is unique in and of itself on the hull design, based on my experience,” Custard said. “Is it gonna be a difficult tow?”

“I’m gonna say it’s, it’s gonna have its own challenges in and of itself, like all tows are gonna have their own unique challenges in and of themselves.”

Custard was questioned for four hours, and he’s still not finished.

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