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January 2, 2013

Drilling rig that ran aground after storm remains difficult to reach for rescue team

ANCHORAGE, Alaska—Shell’s drilling rig Kulluk, perched for a day on stony ground off the shore of a small island south of Kodiak, remained perilously out of reach Tuesday for a salvage team trying to learn its condition and that of tanks holding thousands of gallons of fuel and other hazardous liquids.

The wave-battered rig, whose cheery painted colors were in stark contrast to the mortal danger it was in, was stuck in some 30 to 40 feet of water after breaking loose from its towlines for the fifth and final time Monday night. Efforts to drop two salvage experts to its deck by Coast Guard helicopters were abandoned Tuesday because of impossible winds and the brutish waves, but emergency operations officials said they would try again Wednesday, when the weather was supposed to be somewhat more favorable though still challenging.

In a pair of news conferences Tuesday, officials from Royal Dutch Shell, the Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said the rig appeared intact and there was no sign that any of the fuel, hydraulic fluid or other petroleum liquids on board had spilled.

The heavy cone-shaped rig is about 500 feet from Sitkalidak Island about 10 miles southeast of Old Harbor. Steve Russell, the on-scene coordinator for the DEC, said most of the land in the area was owned by either the Old Harbor village Native corporation or the village itself.

No one has been seriously injured since the rig first broke free of its tow line in a Gulf of Alaska storm Thursday. Three workers who suffered minor injuries have returned to duty, a Shell official said Tuesday. There’s been no sign of environmental damage or injury to any wildlife. The area contains several salmon streams and habitat for three species with Endangered Species Act listings: Steller sea lions, Steller’s eiders and southwest sea otters, according to the DEC.

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