Eyes on the weather as beached Shell oil rig Kulluk awaits rescue

A week after the Shell oil barge Kulluk hit shore near Kodiak Island, Alaska, officials are waiting on the weather to attempt a high-stakes rescue.

The Kulluk, a 266-foot barge fresh off its inaugural drilling expedition in the Arctic, broke free from its tow lines in rough weather and hit the rocky shore on Sitkalidak Island hours before Alaskans rang in the New Year.

The Kulluk remained grounded there Sunday, along with its 150,000 gallons of diesel and roughly 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid, as Shell and Coast Guard officials made preparations to tow the barge 30 miles to safe harbor in Kiliuda Bay, Alaska.

"They’re still trying to get a tow line established, we’re still planning for it, but if they can’t do it, [it will be] because of weather," Matthew Schofield, a spokesman for the response effort and a petty officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday afternoon. "The weather changes really fast here. There could be a window to get it done [Sunday], but maybe there might not."

None of Kulluk's fuel appears to have leaked and the fuel tanks appear to be intact, but officials said at least one of the protective "voids" that separates the ship's outer and inner hull has been filled with water.

Officials have confirmed no firm rescue timeline  -- other than to say they hoped to make an attempt as soon as possible. They declined to make an official rescue plan public, saying the plan was changing too fast.

But  officials said such a rescue likely would involve a tow ship, the Aiviq, whose four engines failed while towing the Kulluk before its beaching last week, and whose technical problems have not been conclusively determined.

"Investigation as to how the [Aiviq's] failure occurred has not been completed,"  Sean Churchfield, a Shell incident commander, said at a Saturday news conference. He said the crew had been treating the ship's fuels and filters and had not seen the problems crop back up.

A rescue team aboard the Kulluk has been evaluating the rig for damage. Officials said the barge's main tow wires appeared sound, which would allow the barge to be dragged back out to sea with the rescue team -- about 10 people -- remaining aboard.

Rescue officials also planned to lay down oil boom to Kodiak Island, although a salmon stream flowing into Ocean Bay complicates those efforts. The Kulluk's fuel will likely remain aboard, as officials were concerned that removing the fuel might be more dangerous than leaving it inside the barge's tanks.

"Removing the fuel from the Kulluk in its current state has inherent risks -- to run a pipe essentially out and into the sea, which has a risk of leakage during the operation," Churchfield said Saturday.

As of early Sunday morning, winds near the Kulluk were about 20 mph, with waves of four feet, Schofield told Thes Times.

The cost of the incident has yet to be determined, and Churchfield declined to say what Shell's plans for drilling in 2013 would be.

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