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LOS ANGELES – (AFP) – US Coast Guards vowed Wednesday to prevent any environmental threat from an oil rig that ran aground in Alaska, as experts prepared to board the the structure to help decide how to salvage it.
Oil giant Shell’s Kulluk mobile drilling unit “remains grounded but stable” and there is no sign of a fuel spill, incident responders said, adding that they hope to put a salvage team on board after airborne assessment.
The rig was being towed to Seattle when it broke free in heavy seas on New Year’s Eve and washed ashore near Kodiak Island, some 300 miles (480 km) southwest of Anchorage.
It has some 150,000 gallons of ultra-low sulfur diesel and roughly 12,000 gallons of oil and hydraulic fluid, according to the far northwestern US state’s KTUU television station.
“The Conical Drill Unit (CDU) Kulluk … remains grounded but stable,” said an update by a joint body including the Coast Guard and Shell Alaska, which organized flights Wednesday to assess the situation from the air.
“Once conditions are deemed safe, Unified Command intends to place an assessment team on the Kulluk to further evaluate the vessel’s condition,” it added, describing the rig as “upright and stable.”
Eighteen crew members had already been evacuated from the rig before it broke free late Monday, New Year’s Eve, KTUU reported. By Tuesday it was described as “upright and rocking with a slow, but stable motion.”
Shell said three people suffered minor injuries during the response to the Kulluk’s grounding, according to the television station.
“The extreme weather conditions and high seas continue to be a challenge,” said Shell incident commander Susan Childs. “Our priority right now is maintaining the safety of our response personnel and evaluating next steps.”
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has set up a no-fly zone around the rig, and the Coast Guard is maintaining a safety zone of one nautical mile around it, said the latest update.
Alaska’s Coast Guard chief, Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, said his primary concern was ensuring the unified command has the personnel, assets and equipment needed to safely salvage the Kulluk.
“I have overflown the Kulluk twice and am fully aware of the remote location, weather challenges and the extensive plans that will have to be developed to ensure this incident is managed in safe and effective manner,” he said.
“This is a very large and complex response and it is important that the American public and our elected officials understand the dangerous and difficult challenges being faced by the response crews.”
He added: “We are continuing our collaborated response with other shareholders in the unified command until the grounded Kulluk no longer poses a threat to the pristine Alaska maritime environment.”
Kodiak Island is a few hundred miles from Prince William Sound, where the “Exxon Valdez” oil tanker spilled around 11 million gallons (40 million litres) in March 1989, in one of the world’s worst environmental disasters.