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Shell drill ship runs aground on Sitkalidak Island

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Photo -   In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, the mobile drilling unit Kulluk is towed by the tugs Aiviq and Nanuq in 29 mph winds and 20-foot seas 116 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012. The crews remain stationed with the drill rig Kulluk Sunday 20 miles from Alaska's Kodiak Island as they wait in rough seas for another tug boat to arrive. The Coast Guard says the goal is to tow the Kulluk to a safe harbor and determine the next step. (AP Photo/U.S Coast Guard, Chris Usher)
In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, the mobile drilling unit Kulluk is towed by the tugs Aiviq and Nanuq in 29 mph winds and 20-foot seas 116 miles southwest of Kodiak City, Alaska, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012. The crews remain stationed with the drill rig Kulluk Sunday 20 miles from Alaska's Kodiak Island as they wait in rough seas for another tug boat to arrive. The Coast Guard says the goal is to tow the Kulluk to a safe harbor and determine the next step. (AP Photo/U.S Coast Guard, Chris Usher)
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A drifting Shell drill ship that broke loose from tow vessels during a severe Gulf of Alaska storm ran aground Monday in shallow water off Sitkalidak Island, company officials said.

Officials at a unified command center, made up of the Coast Guard, Shell, state responders and others, said the Kulluk grounded on rocks off the southeast side of the island. They said it happened less than an hour after a tug boat had been ordered to separate from it out of concern for the safety of its crew.

The Kulluk, one of two Shell drill ships that operated in U.S. Arctic waters in 2012, had been under tow by a tug and a 360-foot anchor handler.

About 4:40 p.m., the line to the anchor handler separated as the vessels were 10 to 15 miles offshore, said Coast Guard Commander Shane Montoya, the acting federal on-scene coordinator. The tug, the Alert, couldn't tow the drill ship alone but tried to guide it to a location where it would cause the least damage, he said.

"Alert tried to maintain some kind of control on it," Montoya said.

The drill ship drafts 35 to 40 feet of water. The Alert cut it loose at 8:15 and it ran aground on rocks at 9 p.m. near the northern tip of Ocean Bay.

The Coast Guard planned to fly out early Tuesday to plan a salvage operation and possible spill response.

Susan Childs, Shell's on-scene coordinator, said it was too early to know how the vessel would weather the storm when it is aground and stationary.

"It just happened, and it's dark. No one has seen it," she said.

The vessel first separated from a towing vessel Thursday night south of Kodiak Island. Repeated attempts to control it in the rough North Pacific were unsuccessful.

The command center, which was overseeing the incident, had announced the vessels would try to ride out a storm with predicted winds of 69 mph and waves to 40 feet rather than continue an attempt to move to shelter on Kodiak Island. Sitkalidak Island, which is uninhabited, lies to the southeast of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska.

No one was on board the Kulluk at the time it ran aground and no injuries were reported. Montoya said it carried 150,000 gallons of diesel and about 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid.

The Kulluk is designed for extended drilling in Arctic waters and underwent $292 million in technical upgrades since 2006 to prepare for Alaska offshore exploration. The drill ship worked during the short 2012 open water season in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast. It's ice-reinforced, funnel-shape hull can deflect moving ice downward and break it into small pieces.

Attached to a drilling prospect, the Kulluk is designed to handle waves 18 feet high. When disconnected from a well, it's designed to handle seas to 40 feet. Garth Pulkkinen of Noble Corp., the operator of the drill ship, said it was never in danger of capsizing.

The vessel Thursday was carrying a skeleton crew of 17 as it was towed by the 360-foot anchor handler Aiviq from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands to Seattle for maintenance. The tow line broke at a shackle attached to one of the vessels.

"It was new. It was inspected before it left Dutch, but it broke," said Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith.

The Aiviq crew alerted the Coast Guard and the cutter Alex Haley from Kodiak motored to the vessels. Two vessels under contract to Shell also left from Seward.

Before a line could be reattached, the Aiviq's engines failed, possibly from contaminated fuel. The Alex Haley attempted to secure the drifting drill ship but that line failed and wrapped itself around one of the cutter's propellers, requiring the cutter to return to Kodiak on one propeller.

With additional heavy weather predicted, the Kulluk crew was evacuated Saturday from the heaving drill ship. Crew members hooked up emergency tow lines and left them trailing behind the vessel in case they were needed.

The Aiviq, with its engines restored, and a tug re-established lines to the drill ship, only to have the lines break Sunday afternoon.

At about 12:45 a.m. Monday, during a lull in the storm, the crew of the Valdez-based tugboat Alert grabbed the original 400-foot line trailing the free-floating drill ship. Later in the morning, the Aiviq, the anchorage handler that was towing the Kulluk by itself Thursday, grappled aboard one of the emergency lines.

The vessels moved north Monday afternoon toward Port Hobron on Kodiak Island before the unified command decided to wait out the storm. Port Hobron is on the southeast side of Kodiak Island.

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