Noble Discoverer Has Engine, Fire, Other Safety Hazards, According to Coast Guard; Congressman Asks Shell for Plans to Fix Ship, Prospects of Arctic Drilling

WASHINGTON (February 22, 2013) – One of two Arctic drilling ships employed by Shell Oil does not have proper propulsion to handle all expected weather conditions, has engine trouble, and multiple fire hazards on board the ship, according to sixteen violations identified by the Coast Guard, which were made public today by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). The violations were found by the U.S. Coast Guard following a November inspection of the Noble Discoverer, which is currently set to be transported to Asia to receive a new round of inspections and maintenance.

Rep. Markey, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, today asked Shell about these violations, when they knew about them, what plan the company has to fix them, and their prospects for re-starting drilling in the Arctic following these revelations. The full letter to Shell President Marvin Odum, which includes a list of the violations, can be found HERE.

“The reports that Shell may have been drilling this summer using a drill ship with serious deficiencies in its safety and pollution control equipment raise additional and continued questions about whether Shell is able to drill safely offshore in the Arctic and raises serious questions regarding the nature and adequacy of Shell’s compliance with applicable laws and regulations,” writes Rep. Markey. “It is imperative that any drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean occur with the highest levels of safety and environmental protections in place, and I am not convinced that these levels can ever be met given the extreme weather conditions and Shell’s performance thus far.”

The Noble Discoverer, along with the Noble Kulluk, are the current Arctic drilling ships Shell is using to explore for oil in Alaska. The Kulluk ran aground as 2012 came to a close after being overwhelmed by a storm and losing connection to its tow vehicles. One of the violations handed out by the Coast Guard against the Discoverer states that “[c]urrent propulsion arrangement does not result in sufficient speed at sea to safely maneuver in all expected conditions without tow assistance.”

In the letter to Shell’s Odum, Rep. Markey asks whether Shell plans on addressing these violations while the ships are at dock in Asia, and what procedures they will institute following this obvious breakdown in drilling and worker safety.



The following deficiencies were issued by the Coast Guard as a result of an examination completed on November 26, 2012, in Seward, Alaska:

1.         Objective evidence revealed systematic failure and lack of main engine preventive maintenance, which caused loss of main propulsion and exhaust system explosion.  Company audit records were not available, crewmember was not familiar with Ship Safety Management System (SMS).  Internal SMS audit required and external recommended. (SOLAS 74 Amend 2009 CE IX/3 & 5, ISM Code Part A/6.2)

2.         Observed multiple fire screen doors throughout accommodation spaces that would not self-close. Stairways that penetrate more than a single deck should be surrounded by "A" class divisions & protected by self-closing doors at all levels.  (IMO MODU Code1979 9.2.3)

3.         Observed multiple fire screen doors throughout accommodation spaces that would not self-close. Stairways which penetrate only a single deck should be protected at least at one level by "A" or "B" Class divisions and self-closing doors so as to limit the rapid spread of fire from one deck to another. (IMO MODU Code 1979 9.2.3)

4.         Main engine piston cooling water is contaminated with sludge and oil. Crew skims the oil off with a ladle & bucket during rounds. Main engine ops manual states failure of the telescopic tube packing will cause dirty piston cooling water. Provide Recognized Organization report indicating current procedure/design is adequate for the service intended and reduces danger to persons. (IMO MODU Code 1979 4.1.3)

5.         Electrical switchboard on lower level engine room has no non-conducting mats or gratings at the front and rear. (IMO MODU Code 1979 5.5.2)

6.         Exhaust system back-fires on regular basis. Chief engineer suspects this is due to change to exhaust system in order to accommodate helicopter deck installation. As a result of back-fires (one of which resulted in a stack fire recently), main propulsion machinery and all auxiliary machinery essential to the propulsion and safety of the unit may be compromised. (IMO MODU Code 1979 7.1.3)

7.         Current propulsion arrangement does not result in sufficient speed at sea to safely maneuver in all expected conditions without tow assistance. Recognized Organization to provide report attesting to satisfactory propulsion arrangement during transit mode of operation. Report shall include analysis of safe operation of unit in transit condition in the most severe environmental conditions expected over a 50-year period.

8.         A fractured pipe was found passing through the 27- S Bilge Holding tank discharging water into the tank from an unknown source.  Recognized Organization shall provide report attesting to the satisfactory repair of existing pipe internal to 27-S holding tank.  (MARPOL 73/78 Annex I/6.4.1 (2011 CE))

9.         Objective evidence discovered during expanded MARPOL exam revealed oily water separator (OWS) audible and visual alarms and oil content meter (OCM) inoperable.  Entire oily water separator system to be examined/serviced as necessary and operation proven.  (MARPOL 73/78 2011 CE Annex I/14.6 & 14.7)

10.       Discovered fuel oil settling tank converted by crew to a bilge water decanting tank. Modifications included installation of steam piping, steam coil in tank and piping connected to/from bilge water system.  Modification was installed without sanction of the Administration. Provide documentation from Recognized Organization of approval and update International Oil Pollution Prevention (IOPP) certificates. (MARPOL 73/78 2011 CE Annex I/6.4.2)

11.       Vessel experienced abnormal propeller shaft vibration on November 22, 2012, requiring main engine shutdown and dead ship tow to Port of Seward. Coast Guard inspection revealed vessel also experienced vibration on November 6, 2012, while en route the Port of Dutch Harbor. Design should not cause undue stress in the machinery operating ranges. (IMO MODU Code 1979 7.1.4)

12.       Oil mist detectors on main engine cylinders 3 and 6 have broken housings and exposed wires. Machinery should be provided with automatic shut-off arrangements or alarms in the case of failures, which could lead rapidly to complete breakdown, damage, or explosion.(IMO MODU Code 1979 4.2.7)

13.       Observed oil soaked structural fire protection insulation in way of exhaust where it transitions to vertical and extending to the lube oil tank. Minimum fire integrity of bulkheads should be as prescribed in table 3 (A-60).  (IMO MODU Code 1979

14.       Noted addition of a "T" with a ball valve in way of vertical pipe connection inboard of overboard discharge valve downstream of oil content meter. Installation of this arrangement could allow introduction of unprocessed oily water to the environment. Provide Recognized Organization approval for installation modification of arrangement.  (MARPOL 73/78 Annex I/15.2 2011 CE)

15.       Reviewed deck log finding no evidence of at least one monthly Emergency Evacuation Plan (EEP) drill between September 23, 2012, and October 26, 2012.  At least once a month, a drill must be conducted that demonstrates the ability of the facilities personnel to perform their duties and functions on the facility, as those duties and functions are described in the EEP.  (33 CFR 146.125(c)(2))

16.       Observed multiple dead end wires and improper wire splices throughout main engine room. Electrical installations should be such that the safety of personnel and unit from electrical hazards will be assured.  (IMO MODU Code1979