SEATTLE — A salvage team was able to board the stranded Kulluk oil rig where it remained beached Wednesday on a remote Alaska shoreline, and authorities said there was still no evidence of fuel leakage into the churning surf.
But questions remained about whether the fuel tanks aboard the vessel were completely undamaged, Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler, the federal response commander, said at a briefing Wednesday night.
Authorities are primarily worried that fuel stored on board the vessel could leak and endanger the abundant wildlife that populates that part of the Gulf of Alaska — only a few hundred miles from where the Exxon Valdez leaked a tanker full of oil into Prince William Sound in 1989 and devastated fisheries for years.
Referring to the observations by the salvage team, Mehler said, “The tanks they looked at were mainly intact, but they did see one that was sucking and blowing a little bit in one of the void spaces.”
Mehler said he could not be more specific about what the five-member team saw in the void space, which is the empty space between the fuel tank and the outer hull.
The inspection team was expected to make a detailed report overnight, and by Thursday morning a plan for how to salvage the rig would begin to be developed, Mehler said.
The 266-foot circular drilling barge, which launched an exploratory oil well for Shell in the Beaufort Sea over the summer, was hit by stormy seas as it was being towed to Seattle last week and wound up beached on a small island south of Kodiak Island in southern Alaska.
Mehler said he and other incident commanders flew over the stranded barge by helicopter and saw no sheen nor any other evidence of a leak.
Steve Russell, the state incident commander from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said very little wildlife was seen in the area around the barge — perhaps because the weather was still so severe, with swells of up to 16 feet.
“You look down and see a couple of seagulls. In a helicopter with rain and 30-knot winds, it’s hard for me to identify what types,” he said.
Though the area nearby is habitat for threatened Steller’s sea lions, Russell said no marine mammals of any kind were observed during the overflight.
Mehler said the vessel is resting in about 30 feet of water near a large cobble beach, with mixed sand and gravel. It is not yet known, he said, whether the vessel can be removed simply by pulling it, though crews were able to unload emergency tow equipment onto the Kulluk on Wednesday.
A second survey crew had been scheduled to land but was prevented by weather.
“Obviously we’re going to do this smart, we’re going to be as careful as we can. She’s in a difficult situation,” Mehler said. “It’s critical we listen to what the [crew] learned today…so we have a full assessment of the current conditions as we move forward with the right plans for operations.”