Updated Friday, January 4, 2013 at 10:03 PM
The Kulluk oil rig, grounded in the powerful Gulf of Alaska surf, has sustained damage to electrical generators and top areas where water breached hatches, according to an initial assessment by a salvage team.
The Shell Oil rig, which was a key component of a summer offshore Arctic drilling effort, remains stable, and there are no signs of fuel leaks. But officials, in a Thursday news conference, said the damage inspections are not complete and declined to speculate on whether the Kulluk is still seaworthy.
"It is difficult to put a timeline on how long this (salvage effort) will take," said Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler, who serves on a Unified Command of federal, state and industry officials overseeing the salvage effort. "Understand that as the recovery develops, it may be necessary to alter our plans to address new issues or concerns."
The Monday grounding near South Central Alaska's Kodiak Island was a blow to Shell's efforts to prospect for major new reserves of offshore Arctic oil, and the Coast Guard has launched an investigation of the events surrounding the mishap.
On Thursday, calls for additional scrutiny of the Shell drilling operations in the Arctic swelled with a request for a formal investigation by 45 House Democrats in Congress.
The House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition called on the Interior Department and the Coast Guard to jointly investigate the New Year's Eve grounding of the Kulluk and a previous incident connected to Arctic offshore drilling operations in 2012.
"The recent grounding of Shell's Kulluk oil rig amplifies the risks of drilling in the Arctic," they said in a joint statement. "This is the latest in a series of alarming blunders, including the near-grounding of another of Shell's Arctic drilling rigs, the 47-year-old Noble Discoverer, in Dutch Harbor and the failure of its blowout containment dome, the Arctic Challenger, in lakelike conditions."
The coalition believes these "serious incidents" warrant thorough investigation, the statement said.
Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said in an email that the company is in full support of, and is providing resources for, the investigation of the grounding by the Unified Incident Command, made up of federal, state and company representatives. Smith said the findings will be available to the public.
The Kulluk was one of two oil rigs Shell deployed during last summer's drilling season. In December, Shell began towing the Kulluk back from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands to a Seattle shipyard for maintenance, with plans to send the rig back north for more drilling this summer.
But on Dec. 27, while under tow through the stormy Gulf of Alaska, a tow line severed. That was the beginning of a series of mishaps that included a tug's engine failures and ended with the Monday evening grounding by Sitkalidak Island, which is uninhabited and lies just off Kodiak Island.
Shell incident commander Sean Churchfield said Thursday that salvage teams lowered aboard the Kulluk on Wednesday found wave damage to the top sides of the vessel where a number of doors had been breached. He said workers were able to secure some of the doors before leaving the rig, and that a second team was able to board Thursday morning to continue the damage assessment.
Churchfield also confirmed salvagers heard "breathing" from a vent but couldn't immediately determine whether it was a breech or natural venting.
Smit Salvage, a Netherlands-based company, has been hired to organize the salvage effort, which, under the best of circumstances, could pull the rig away from the shore and tow it back to a port for repairs. But such efforts often face unexpected challenges, and if the damage is too severe, it could be difficult to refloat.
The salvage effort already is complicated by damage to both emergency and service generator systems. To work around the loss of power, one option would be to try to lower a portable generation system aboard the rig. Another would be to try the salvage without power, according to Churchfield.
Currently, more than 600 people are involved in the response to the Monday grounding of the Kulluk, with preparations under way to deal with a possible fuel spill in an area that includes wildlife, salmon streams and sensitive archaeological sites.
The rig came aground within a mile of Refuge Rock, where indigenous women and children were slaughtered in 1784 by Russian fur traders, according to Sven Haakanson, executive director of the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository on Kodiak Island. It is one of several archaeological sites nearby.
"We will hopefully go out there in the next day or two to do on-site observation, and also to inform crews where they can and cannot go," said Haakanson, who said his own excavations in the early 1990s at Refuge Rock uncovered a woman's skull and leg bone of a child.
The Kulluk's grounding has given fresh ammunition to environmentalists, who say conditions are too harsh and the stakes too high to allow industrial development in the Arctic, where drilling sites are 1,000 miles or more from a Coast Guard base.
Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith said Wednesday the Kulluk had been towed more than 4,000 miles and had previously experienced similar storm conditions.
Shell staged additional towing vessels along the route in case there were problems, he said.
Staff reporter Hal Bernton and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
PETTY OFFICER 1ST CLASS SARA FRA / AP
The Kulluk oil rig is grounded near Kodiak Island in southwestern Alaska.