Check of grounded drill ship: stable, no oil sheen

Salvage experts on Wednesday made their first assessment of the grounded drill ship Kulluk. The rig appears stable and there are no signs that diesel and oil onboard have leaked, a Coast Guard official said.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A Coast Guard official who flew over a petroleum drilling ship grounded on a remote Alaska island says there are still no signs of any fuel sheen or environmental impact and the rig appears to be stable.

The Royal Dutch Shell PLC drill ship Kulluk ran aground in a fierce North Pacific storm Monday night off an uninhabited island near Kodiak.

Calmer weather conditions Wednesday also allowed a team of five salvage experts to be lowered by helicopter to the rig to conduct a three-hour structural assessment. Officials say their information will be used to formulate salvage plans. Also taken to the Kulluk was a state-owned emergency towing system for use in the operation.

Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler says he saw four life boats on the shoreline but there was no indication that other debris had been ripped from the ship.

Mehler said the Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig is carrying about 143,000 gallons of diesel and about 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid and appeared stable.

A team of company, Coast Guard and local officials said they were mobilizing spill response equipment and preparing a plan in the event of a spill in the Partition Cove and Ocean Bay areas of the island. The area is home to at least two endangered species, as well as harbor seals, salmon, and sea lions.

Mehler said a team of about 500 people was working on a plan, "with many more coming."

A Shell official said the drilling rig was built with a double-sided hull of reinforced steel that is 3 inches thick. It recently had undergone $292 million in improvements before being put into service for a short time this summer in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast.

It was being towed to Seattle for maintenance last week when it separated from a towing vessel south of Kodiak Island. Repeated attempts to maintain towing lines were unsuccessful as a severe storm passed through the area. By Monday night, tow boats guided the rig to a place where it would cause the least environmental damage and cut it loose. It grounded off the southeast side of uninhabited Sitkalidak Island, which is near the larger Kodiak Island in the gulf.

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, expressed his concerns in a statement Tuesday.

"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."

Sean Churchfield, operations manager for Shell Alaska, said once the situation is under control, an investigation will be conducted into the cause. He did not know whether the findings would be made public.

The Coast Guard said it would be investigating and would make its findings public.

Associated Press staff writers Dan Joling and Donna Blankinship contributed to this story.

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