Coast Guard pursuing investigation into Alaskan drilling ship

(CBS News) CBS News has learned that the U.S. Coast Guard has called in their criminal investigators to probe potential violations of federal law involving the activities of a 572-foot oil drilling and exploration ship owned by the Noble corporation, and contracted by Royal Dutch Shell to search for oil in the arctic. Royal Dutch Shell owned the drilling rig, the Kulluk, that ran aground in rough Alaskan seas Monday.

The revelation that another Noble ship working for Shell may have been operating with serious safety and pollution control problems bolstered allegations from environmental activists that the oil industry is unable to conduct safe oil drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean.

The Coast Guard conducted a routine marine safety inspection when Noble's Discoverer arrived at a Seward, Alaska port in late November. The inspection team found serious issues with the ship's safety management system and pollution control systems. The inspectors also listed more than a dozen "discrepancies" which, sources tell CBS News, led them to call in the Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) to determine if there were violations of federal law.

Sources told CBS News that when criminal investigators arrived, the Noble Discoverer's crew had been provided with lawyers and declined to be interviewed.

After the Coast Guard's initial inspection of the Noble Discoverer, on Nov. 30, Capt. Paul Mehler, the Officer in Charge of Marine Inspection in Western Alaska issued a Port State Control Detention for the Noble Discoverer, effectively grounding the ship until safety violations were fixed. By Dec. 19, the ship was released from Port Detention but still remains in Seward for additional repairs.

According to the Coast Guard, the recent issues come after a string of warning signs pointing to potential issues on the Discoverer and the Kulluk over the course of 2012. An "enforcement warning" for being a "pollution source" was issued to the Noble Discoverer in Anchorage, on Sept. 24, following an investigation into an oil discharge. On May 21, in Seattle, days before the ship sailed toward the Arctic Ocean, an inspection of the Discoverer found 23 deficiencies, including problems with bilge water management system, ventilation, electric system, and ship's engine.

The Kulluk has also had recent violations including three enforcement warnings for being a source of pollution in 2012 and a Coast Guard inspection last May that found 19 deficiencies in electrical and maintenance systems. Officialssay there is no sign that the grounded Kulluk, which is carrying 143,000 gallons of diesel, is leaking fuel.;

Activists from Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm that represents organizations in current litigation regarding Shell's Arctic drilling activities, claim the safety record of the entire fleet deployed for Shell in the Arctic raises questions about whether the ships and rigs are capable of handling conditions in the rough Arctic Ocean.

"No matter how many times we hear Big Oil tell us that everything is under control, the fact is the oil industry cannot operate safely and responsibly in the Arctic Ocean, and the risks of more reckless oil drilling are too great for us and future generations," Earthjustice president Trip Van Noppen said in a statement.

In an interview with CBS News on Friday, Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee said "We have to ask the question whether Shell Oil is playing a shell game with the safety protections that have to be in place to insure that drilling in the Arctic can be done without any damage to the environment."

In response to the Coast Guard investigation involving the Noble Discoverer, Shell spokesperson Kelly op de Weegh said in a statement "Noble, owners of the Discoverer, are swiftly addressing the discrepancies identified in the Coast Guard inspection of that vessel. Noble has addressed and closed many of the items noted in the inspection, and others are planned for the Discoverer's post-season maintenance schedule. Shell will not deploy the Noble Discoverer for exploration operations until all post-season issues have been corrected."

In a statement to CBS News, Noble spokesperson John Breed said "Noble continues to cooperate fully with Coast Guard to address any deficiencies they may have identified in their inspections of the ship. Noble will continue to cooperate with the Coast Guard so that the ship can safely travel to the shipyard in Washington State to conduct any further repairs."

On Thursday, a coalition of 46 Democratic members of Congress called on Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to join with the Coast Guard in investigating the whether the fleet contracted by Shell should operate in the Arctic Ocean.

Sources tell CBS News that Coast Guard Investigations Service agents and EPA investigators have been meeting with federal prosecutors in Anchorage. Electronic information downloaded from the Noble Discovery's on-board computers is being reviewed by Coast Guard experts in Washington.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler did not return a call seeking comment. A Coast Guard spokesman when asked whether the criminal probe might result in charges would only say, "the Coast Guard continues to review evidence and the investigation is ongoing".

  • John Miller

    John Miller is a senior correspondent for CBS News, with extensive experience in intelligence, law enforcement and journalism, including stints in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI.

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