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Storm slows Coast Guard assessment of runaway drilling rig damage

| Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, 7:48 p.m.

ANCHORAGE — The Coast Guard was trying to determine on Tuesday whether a strong Alaska storm had abated enough to allow a helicopter to assess the condition of a drilling rig that ran aground in shallow water off a small island.

If conditions are safe, the helicopter also would lower experts to the Kulluk to get a close look at the rig and determine whether it is leaking fuel, said Curtis Smith, a Royal Dutch Shell PLC employee speaking for a unified command center set up in an Anchorage hotel.

About 250 people from the Coast Guard, Shell, state responders and others were involved in a response effort and waiting to know for sure what environmental impact the grounding might have caused.

Storm conditions re-mained severe Tuesday morning, with the grounded rig likely taking a pounding. Winds were reported at up to 70 mph, with waves 35 feet and 45-foot swells. Some waves overnight reached 50 feet, the National Weather Service said.

The forecast called for both wind and waves easing Tuesday afternoon.

“We are doing whatever we can do to prepare,” unified command center spokeswoman Destin Singleton said.

The Kulluk is carrying 150,000 gallons of diesel and about 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid. “The condition of the Kulluk has not been confirmed,” unified command said in a status report issued about 12 hours after the grounding.

The drilling rig was built with a double-sided hull of reinforced steel that is 3 inches thick, Smith said.

The drilling rig's difficulties go back to Thursday when it separated from a towing vessel south of Kodiak Island as it was being towed to Seattle for maintenance. The rig grounded Monday night on a sand and gravel shore off the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska.

The North Pacific storm that has caused problems for Shell's efforts to move the drill into place near Kodiak Island was expected to ease a bit Tuesday, spokeswoman Darci Sinclair said.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who is the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, issued a statement expressing his concerns about the Kulluk situation.

“Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies,” Markey said. “Drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment.”

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