Coast Guard finds safety violations on Shell rig

The oil drilling ship Noble Discoverer, seen April 5, 2012 in the Port of Seattle before its trip to Alaska for the summer Arctic drilling season.

The oil drilling ship Noble Discoverer, seen April 5, 2012 in the Port of Seattle before its trip to Alaska for the summer Arctic drilling season. (Photo by James Brooks)

Shell’s Noble Discoverer drill rig has had several high-profile mishaps in 2012. Now, the Coast Guard says it found problems with the rig’s on-board systems during an emergency inspection in Seward.

Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow says the vessel was on the Coast Guard’s radar because of a stack fire that broke out while the rig was tied up in Unalaska in November. Then the Noble Discoverer headed for Seward, where Wadlow says it had problems with its propulsion system. Those two incidents, in such close proximity, prompted the Coast Guard to send safety inspectors aboard.

The inspectors flagged 16 items, including threats to crew safety and the marine environment.

“There were two main issues,” Wadlow says. “Number one, they had several issues concerning the safety of the crew being able to conduct their duties on board the vessel. And then, the second issue was discrepancies with the pollution prevention equipment on board the vessel. That also had to be addressed.”

Wadlow says the violations are still under investigation, so he couldn’t give any more details.

The Coast Guard ordered a “port state control detention” for the Noble Discoverer, meaning that the vessel wasn’t allowed to leave Seward until it was repaired. Wadlow says the crew brought the rig up to code, and the detention was lifted on December 19, after three weeks.

The Noble Discoverer is still in Seward, getting ready to head to a Seattle-area shipyard for the rest of the winter.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith says that ten safety problems are still outstanding, and they’ll be fixed before the vessel heads back to the Arctic again. Smith says Shell is taking the violations seriously, but he stresses that they all concern the rig’s marine systems, and not Shell’s drilling activity.

The Swiss-based Noble Corporation, which owns the Discoverer rig, says it’s started an internal investigation. The company says it will work with Shell and the Coast Guard to upgrade its vessel management procedures before the start of the next drilling season.

Shell has reserved the Noble Discoverer through February 2014, renting it at a rate of $240,000 a day.

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