The weather improved a bit in the vicinity of the grounded Shell drilling rig Kulluk Wednesday morning, allowing a Coast Guard helicopter to drop a team of salvage experts to its deck to inspect the crippled vessel.
The five experts -- the incident command originally said in a prepared statement there were six -- spent 3 hours on rig assessing its damage and getting information for a salvage operation that could still be days or weeks away.
In a short teleconferenced news briefing Wednesday evening, Shell's Alaska operations manager, Sean Churchfield, said the team was limited in the amount of time it could spend on the Kulluk and didn't get a full assessment of whether sea water was leaking into tanks or other open spaces in the vessel, either from the deck or the hull.
Of major concern is the estimated 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 12,000 gallons of other petroleum products on board, including helicopter fuel and hydraulic fluid.
"They were able to check into some of the voids and some of the tanks," Churchfield said, but stopped briefly when he was interrupted by someone else in the room. He then went on, "The tanks they looked at were mainly intact, but they did see one that was sucking and blowing a little bit on one of the void spaces," implying contact with ocean waves.
Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler took over answering the question and said that officials only had preliminary information from the team.
"What we wanted to know immediately was, were any of the fuel tanks breached, and what we got from that initial report, was no. However there were other voids that they felt they had concern," Mehler said.
In his opening remarks, Mehler said there were no signs of fuel sheen or other environmental impact.
The state on-scene coordinator, Steve Russell, said in his flyover he saw birds in the vicinity but no marine mammals. However, a DEC situation report issued Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. reported that Steller sea lions were "spotted in the water in the vicinity of the Kulluk and goats were spotted on the adjacent upland by the Kulluk assessment team."
The Kulluk, under tow to the Seattle area from Dutch Harbor, broke free from its towline on Monday and grounded off Sitkalidak Island, just south of Kodiak Island.
Before the teleconference officially began at 7:30 p.m., a microphone to the room was briefly opened and any reporter on the line could hear Mehler rehearse his remarks.
"As we flew along the shoreline we did see four lifeboats that we believe to be from the Kulluk. All right? In addition, there was some debris in the area but it's not known if those items were from the Kulluk. I am encouraged by what we saw today, and we are awaiting the salvage team's assessment to finalize plans to remove the potential for any release. All right?"
At that point, he had a brief conservation about his statement with a Coast Guard public information officer, Amy Midgett, and then the line went dead. Five minutes later, when Mehler made his formal statement during the official briefing, the item about other debris in the area vanished from his remarks.
Asked later to explain what why that reference was dropped, Shell spokeswoman Dustin Singleton, speaking for the incident command, said she would find out, but hadn't replied by 9:15 p.m.
She said the officials in the room came to realize they were rehearsing with an open mic, and blamed the error on the teleconference operator, who was in Australia.
"What I understand, she was a bit confused," Singleton said. "We're trying to work out what happened."
Reach Richard Mauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.