ANCHORAGE, Alaska - It could take until spring for crews to remove a grounded oil-drilling ship from rocks near a remote Alaska island, thanks to the fury of the North Pacific winter, a veteran marine salvager said.
The Kulluk, a Royal Dutch Shell PLC barge, ran aground during a fierce year-end storm, and more than 600 people are working on its recovery. But Dan Magone, who has worked on other major groundings in Alaska, said he'd be surprised if they can remove it any time soon.
"I'd really be shocked if this thing is so lightly aground and so lightly damaged that they can just go pull this thing off right away," said Magone, president of Magone Marine, in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Dutch Harbor.
The Kulluk is a circular barge 266 feet in diameter with a funnel-shaped, reinforced steel hull that allows it to operate in ice. One of two Shell ships that drilled last year in the Arctic Ocean, it has a 160-foot derrick rising from its center and no propulsion system of its own.
The vessel was being towed to Seattle last week when a line broke in heavy seas. Re-attached lines broke four more times, and it ran aground New Year's Eve on Sitkalidak Island, less than a mile from Kodiak Island.
Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation said Saturday that crews had found no sign that the vessel's hull had been breached or that oil had been spilled.
"Now it's in an uncontrolled, unplanned, totally screwed-up situation," Magone said. "Now you're going to go out there and fight the Gulf of Alaska, the Alaskan winter? I don't think so."
Smit Salvage, the Dutch company hired to salvage the Kulluk, referred calls to Shell, which has said it's too early to predict when the barge might be moved.
Magone is not working on the salvage of the Kulluk but has experience with other major groundings, including the Selendang Ayu, a cargo ship wrecked in December 2004 on Unalaska Island.
Magone's company is under contract for two other wrecks - fishing boats from which fuel has been removed - but he's waiting until spring to finish the job.
"The insurance company doesn't want to pay any more money than they have to to get the wrecks out of there, so why risk our equipment and our crew and spend a thousand percent more money playing around in the wintertime when you can just wait until the weather's good and do it then?" Magone said.
"That's pretty normal. Of course with a big fiasco like this, there's all kinds of pressure and everything. But there's a limit to what you can do," he said.
The first salvage crew boarded the vessel Wednesday and assessments continue.
Shell has reported superficial damage above the deck and seawater within that entered through open hatches. Water has knocked out regular and emergency generators, but portable generators were put on board Friday.
The condition of the hull will be key in determining whether the Kulluk can be refloated.
The Coast Guard must review and sign off on a salvage plan. Brian Thomas of the Coast Guard's salvage engineering response team in Washington, D.C., said the team's marine engineers give technical advice and assess risks.
If salvors want to stage equipment on the island, they will need the OK of the landowner, wildlife managers and environmental officials. There are also safety considerations for the crewmembers involved.
Magone expects the Coast Guard to require removal of fuel on board. Salvors already are fighting time and the elements.
"This is the absolute worst time of year to mess with that thing over there," Magone said. "If they can't get it out of there in a few weeks, it's going to be a wreck removal in the springtime."
From damage reports so far, he's guessing the best Shell can hope for is that the Kulluk will not be a total loss and can be rebuilt.
"But it's out of commission," he said. "They've lost the use of it for next year's drilling season, and that's really disheartening for everybody."