Despite efforts, Alaska Kulluk grounding couldn’t be prevented

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Waves crash over the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, Jan. 1, 2013. (US Coast Guard photo)
Waves crash over the mobile offshore drilling unit Kulluk where it sits aground on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, Alaska, Jan. 1, 2013.
(US Coast Guard photo)

The Coast Guard captain who played a key role during attempts to control the ill-fated Kulluk conical drilling rig in December called the actions of those at sea “heroic” Wednesday.

Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler III testified before investigators at a two-week hearing in Anchorage about his role in the grounding of the Kulluk as the federal on-scene coordinator during the event. Mehler also serves as the commanding officer for Coast Guard Sector Anchorage and is in charge of coordinating the response to any oil spill along Alaska’s coast from Yakutat into the Arctic.

Mehler specifically commended the evacuation team and the actions of the captains who tried to maneuver the Kulluk, the Royal Dutch Shell-owned drilling rig, through “horrific” winter sea conditions in the Gulf of Alaska.

He also commended a group of four contractors who were lowered onto the Kulluk after it was evacuated to assess what options were available to tow the rig. While those four were removed shortly after landing on the deck of the oscillating rig because conditions were dangerous, Mehler still highlighted their bravery.

“They understood the risk but understood they had unique talents and skills that could change the course of this mission,” he said.

Unfortunately, bad weather and a series of towline failures kept ships from hanging on to the 266-foot-diameter drilling rig, which ran aground just hours before the New Year.

Tension at Unified Command

Much of Mehler’s testimony focused on what he knew and when, both before the events leading up to the Kulluk’s troubles, and during the disaster that culminated with its grounding.

Mehler spoke in depth on how the Unified Command came together. The command — a joint effort of Shell, Noble Drilling, shipbuilder Edison Chouest, the Coast Guard, as well as state and local entities — was in charge of coordinating the response.

He said he was pleased with the professionalism within the command.

One event Mehler spoke extensively about was release of the Alert’s towline to the Kulluk on the night of Dec. 31. The Alert, a Crowley-owned tug, was the last ship to hang onto Kulluk before it ran aground off Sitkalidak Island.

Mehler explained how he carefully watched the trajectory of two ships as they drifted closer and closer to land, despite the Alert’s efforts.

At the time, hundreds of people were working in the command center at the downtown Anchorage Marriott Hotel. He described the mood of those people as “professional, but increasingly concerned.”

Then the command got some bad news: The Alert had lost her engines.

“It just took the wind out (of Unified Command),” Mehler said.

Alert’s engines overtaxed

He quickly learned that that information was bad — that the Alert had never lost its engines, but instead had sent out an alarm that the engines, being run at 100 percent power, were being overtaxed.

It was then that Mehler realized that if the engines running full power weren’t enough to control the tow, it was time to cut her loose.

Mehler explained in testimony that while Unified Command is a joint effort, as federal on-scene coordinator, he has 51 percent of the vote if needed.

So Mehler went to the front of the room and called for attention. He explained what was happening and that with safety in mind, the best option was to cut the connection.

“We were left with no options at this point,” he said.

Everyone was in agreement, he said.

Immediately, Norman “Buddy” Custard, the Shell chief of emergency response, left the room to tell John Kaighin, the Shell marine manager, to call the crews and let them know.

Hours later, the Kulluk ran aground.

Doing things differently?

In other testimony, Mehler said if he could have done things differently he would have asked more questions about the Aiviq and Kulluk tow operations.

“We asked a lot of questions on ice, but I didn’t ask about when you were returning (for) repairs,” he said.

Mehler did have concerns over two issues with the tow’s transit: Why so much fuel had to be on board and why there were so many people on board during transit.

Both were explained to him adequately, he said.

The fuel was needed for proper ballast and the 18 people on board the Kulluk were necessary for basic operations of the vessel.

Mehler did note that he had inspected the Kulluk, but not the Aiviq. In retrospect, he would have inspected both, though he added that neither inspection was required. Both ships had all the necessary certificates and he had no indication there was issue.

Mehler’s testimony marked the eighth day of testimony for the Coast Guard’s investigation — a marine casualty hearing — led by Cmdr. Josh McTaggart. It aims to uncover what went wrong and, ultimately, who is responsible for the grounding.

All Shell drilling off Alaska in 2013 was suspended earlier this year.

Any recommendations will be passed on to Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, who will decide whether or not to make changes to regulations or pursue criminal charges.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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