Spills plague oil containment barge work near Bellingham

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BELLINGHAM — Minor oil spills have plagued construction of an oil spill containment barge Shell Oil will use to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska.

Hydraulic systems leaked on July 24, Aug. 4 and Aug. 6, each releasing about a quart of oil into Whatcom Waterway, the Washington state Ecology Department said. The department sent a notice of violation to Superior Energy Services, which is building the Arctic Challenger, The Bellingham Herald reported Thursday.

"They're a quart at a time, but every time there's a spill, there's more environmental damage," Ecology Department spokeswoman Katie Skipper said.

The department also is investigating a spill of less than 20 gallons of diesel fuel from a small work boat into the waterway. All of the spills were held within a containment boom.

Crews may be working in haste to finish the barge so Shell can start drilling, the spokeswoman said.

"We know they're going fast, but they have to be responsible for protecting the water and following our laws," Skipper said.

The department is requiring Superior to plug deck drains, set up barriers to catch spray from hydraulics, and lock equipment so it is only running when supervised. Superior is following the steps.

"Superior takes spills seriously, and it's a corporate priority to ensure that we complete the project safely, efficiently and without harm to the environment," said spokesman Greg Rosenstein.

The delay with the barge has set back Shell Oil's plan to drill in the short season when Arctic water is ice-free.

Drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas will depend on obtaining Coast Guard certification for the spill response vessel in the next 10 to 20 days, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday during a stop in Anchorage.

The Arctic Challenger will be the fourth-line of defense against a spill, along with blowout preventers, shear rams and a capping stack, said Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith. The barge will carry a dome-shaped containment system that could be lowered onto a leaking well to funnel oil and gas to a barge.

Shell's goal remains to complete as many wells as possible this year, Smith said.