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Salvage crew boards grounded drilling rig in Alaska

Tropical storm force winds and massive winds caused a drilling ship to run ashore near Kodiak, Alaska. KTUU's Adam Pinsker reports.

A team of six salvage experts boarded, on Wednesday, an oil drilling rig  that went aground off an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Alaska.

The team was lowered to the Kulluk by a Coast Guard helicopter to conduct a structural assessment of the rig. The experts were on board the rig for about three hours.

Earlier efforts to board the rig were put on hold due to severe weather conditions over the past several days. Conditions were calmer on Wednesday.

The Kulluk broke loose of its tether to a tug boat in stormy seas last week and grounded onto a sand and gravel beach.

A slight break in the weather – 30 mph winds and 6-foot waves with 12-foot swells -- gave a team of Coast Guard, local and company officials optimism that salvage teams could be put in place, Jason Moore, a unified command spokesman told NBC News on Wednesday.

“It’s not great, but it’s better than what it has been over the last several days,” Moore said. “It is a bit of a break and were hoping we can take advantage of the improving weather”  

The Kulluk remained stranded but stable off Sitkalidak Island, which is along the southeastern coast of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, Moore said. A Coast Guard cutter stationed to observe overnight Tuesday reported no leaks, he said.

A Coast Guard plane and helicopter flew over the Kulluk on Tuesday but poor weather didn’t permit marine experts to board the vessel.

Officials were hoping to get marine experts onboard to take photos and videos, and then come up with a more complete salvage plan once weather permits.

The Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig is carrying about 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel and about 12,000 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid, according to federal on-scene response coordinator Capt. Paul Mehler.

Environmentalists have seized on the accident as proof Arctic Ocean oil operations are too risky. The drilling rig was being moved from its Arctic drilling grounds to Seattle for maintenance, and had passed through the Bering Sea and was set to cross the Gulf of Alaska when the storm hit.

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“Oil companies keep saying they can conquer the Arctic, but the Arctic keeps disagreeing with the oil companies,” Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a member of the Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.

A plan was being prepared in the event of a spill in the Partition Cove and Ocean Bay areas of the island. The area is home to at least two endangered species, as well as harbor seals, salmon, and sea lions.

Pa3 Jon Klingenberg / AP

This image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows the Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig Kulluk aground off a small island near Kodiak Island on Tuesday.

Mehler said a team of about 500 people was working on a plan, "with many more coming."

A Shell official said the drilling rig was built with a double-sided hull of reinforced steel that is 3 inches thick. It recently had undergone $292 million in improvements before being put into service for a short time this summer in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast.

It was being towed to Seattle for maintenance last week when it separated from a towing vessel south of Kodiak Island. Repeated attempts to maintain towing lines were unsuccessful as a severe storm passed through the area. By Monday night, tow boats guided the rig to a place where it would cause the least environmental damage and cut it loose.

Sean Churchfield, operations manager for Shell Alaska, said once the situation is under control, an investigation will be conducted into the cause. He did not know whether the findings would be made public.

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The Coast Guard said it also would investigate and make its findings public.

NBC News staff contributed to this report from The Associated Press.

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