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Kodiak meeting on grounded drill ship attracts few

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Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013 11:07 am

KODIAK, Alaska - It was nothing like the Exxon Valdez.

Fewer than 50 Kodiakans turned out to the Kodiak High School Commons Wednesday night for a remarkably quiet community meeting about the Royal Dutch Shell PLC drilling rig Kulluk, now moored in Kiliuda Bay after being pulled from Sitkalidak Island.

Since the Kulluk ran aground on New Year's Eve after slipping its tow lines, the rig has been remarkable more for what it hasn't brought to Kodiak than what it has. While crowds of salvage and spill experts have filled Kodiak's hotels and restaurants, no crude oil or slicked birds have washed up on Kodiak's beaches.

"This was not even a meeting compared to that," said Dany Stihl, a longtime Kodiak resident who remembers the Exxon Valdez spill and attended Wednesday's meeting.

Instead of the furor that churned packed auditoriums in 1989, Wednesday's community meeting brought calm questions and - more often than not - praise for Shell's handling of the situation.

"I'm just so thankful that you're here," said Iver Malutin, an 81-year resident of Kodiak. "This is a blessing in disguise ... it's an eye-opener."

Bryan Horn, a Tanner crab fisherman, brought the most involved question of the evening when he asked about the Kulluk's effect on the Tanner crab season, which opens Jan. 15. The Kulluk was deliberately moored in a portion of Kiliuda Bay closed to Tanner crab fishing, but Horn said he's concerned that fishermen who drop crab pots into the bay might lose them to tugs or other boats moving to the Kulluk.

"Those are giant tugs, and you could take out 10 pots in one swing," Horn said.

Members of the unified command have already been in contact with Horn, and during the meeting pledged to share additional information about ship movements. After the meeting, Horn said he was satisfied with the response.

A handful of Kodiak fishermen asked pointed questions about the Kulluk's path before breaking loose from its tow. Why didn't the Kulluk sail in sheltered waters west of Kodiak Island, asked Skip Bolton. "It really baffles me to believe that so many people could be standing around; the Coast Guard and other professional people and not take that most common-sense route to the west side," he said.

Sean Churchfield, the incident commander for the unified command, deflected the question by saying it was outside his area of expertise. "The decisions were resting with the tug master and the vessel master of the Aiviq, so I can't actually help you," he said.

While Churchfield and the other members of the unified command couldn't answer all questions, they responded to enough to alleviate fears of an Exxon Valdez sequel. Even Shell's simple presence was reassuring, audience members said.

"Exxon didn't respond for weeks," said Kodiak resident Stacy Studebaker, recalling the 1989 incident. "This all went very smoothly."

According to the latest information from the unified command, the Kulluk will remain in Kiliuda Bay until divers and underwater robots complete a survey of the rig's hull. When that survey is complete, Churchfield said, Shell will determine what, if any, repairs must be made to the Kulluk in order to allow it to move from the bay.

No timeline has been set to complete the assessment, but Churchfield said divers began work Wednesday and are expected to continue through at least Thursday and possibly into Friday.

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