One of Shells Arctic drilling vessels, the Polar Pioneer, arriving in Port Angeles last month.
One of Shell's Arctic drilling vessels, the Polar Pioneer, arriving in Port Angeles last month. Kelly O

Right now, five Port of Seattle commissioners are scrambling to figure out what to do about Shell. Earlier this week, the mayor told them that their decision to host Shell's Arctic drilling fleet over the next two years wasn't in compliance with the port's current land use permit.

One of the arguments made by those in favor of the lease is that these vessels pose little threat to local waters. But an e-mail between a staffer in Governor Jay Inslee's office and the Department of Ecology (obtained via a public records request) shows that Shell's Arctic drilling fleet has had "numerous small spills" in Washington state waters. In a follow-up interview, Ecology revealed that one Shell vessel in particular, the Arctic Challenger—the barge with an oil spill containment system—has been responsible for an inordinate amount of spills.

"If you look at any given vessel that reports spills over a two- or three-year period, it's not unusual for a vessel to get two or three spills," David Byers, spills response manager for Ecology, explained to The Stranger. "The number of spills from the Arctic Challenger, however, is an unusually high number of spills," he said.

The Arctic Challenger has had eight small spills ("small" meaning under 50 gallons) in Washington waters since 2012, including 24 gallons of hydraulic oil "spilled when a hose on the containment dome was broken by a remote-operated vehicle" at roughly 600 feet deep. The spill occurred in 2013 during testing of the fleet's containment dome, a critical piece of equipment in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic. Other Shell Arctic drilling vessels have been responsible for five other small spills in state waters, including one this month. The spills range from less than one gallon to as many as 30 gallons. (Vessels are required to report all spills to Ecology.)

Back in February, when an Inslee staffer reached out to Ecology employees to help prepare the governor for a possible lease-related question, spills preparedness section manager Linda Pilkey-Jarvis noted that Shell's Arctic fleet was on the state's "radar screen."

Here's the full note:

"Several issues here from an ecology spills perspective (we have not been the lead agency in the issue of opposing potential offshore drilling).

We just learned yesterday from the Coast Guard about the Shell Arctic fleet staging here for their arctic drilling. They said this may involve as many as 30 vessels. Some of these vessels will be regulated by the state (require oil spill plan coverage), some will not. The Coast Guard is planning to take an active role in inspection of these vessels. They are also on alert for possible protests, though do not know of any such planned campaigns at this point.

In the past, some of the Shell Arctic support vessels have had work done here, prior to going up, and had numerous small spills; they are on our radar screen. We will also be working with the company to make sure the vessels are good actors while here in our waters."

Ecology explained that hydraulic spills aren't particularly uncommon when it comes to fishing or cargo ships testing their engines or refueling. But even small spills of hydraulic oil matter, because they add up, Byers said. And all oil is toxic for the marine environment.

An unusual number of small spills could signify "a larger underlying challenge with the culture of the organization or the culture of the leadership," Byers added. "We do take that very seriously with the Arctic Challenger and some of the other vessels on the list."

Shell did not respond to a request for comment.

Here's the full list of incidents associated with Shell's Arctic drilling fleet, according to Ecology:

Arctic Challenger
ERTS 635364 7/24/2012 1 gallon hydraulic oil spilled due to improper equipment use by contractor (a valve that should have been open was left closed during the charging of a hydraulic system).
ERTS 635590 8/5/2012 <1 gallon hydraulic oil spilled during system maintenance when a system with an open fitting was energized in error.
ERTS 635633 8/9/2012 1 gallon hydraulic oil spilled due to poor communication during the installation and testing of new fitting.
ERTS 639248 2/12/2013 1 gallon hydraulic oil spilled from a loose fitting on an anchor winch motor piping.
ERTS 640101 3/21/2013 24 gallons of hydraulic oil spilled when a hose on the containment dome was broken by an remote-operated vehicle at depth.
ERTS 652416 10/22/2014  One cup diesel to water from a drain pan on crane pedestal. Superior is the RP.
ERTS 652752 11/6/2014 1 gallon hydraulic oil spilled due to improper monitoring of sight glass during internal transfer.
ERTS 655028 2/25/2015 Sheen investigated, source not determined. Ecology inspector noted a leaking hydraulic tank under a lifeboat davit on the Arctic Challenger.
Bear Cub (Arctic Challenger service vessel)
ERTS 635673   8/7/2012 Report of 30 gallon diesel spilled (5 to water) due to fuel return line running to wrong tank (improper procedures).
ERTS 628161 7/22/2011 1 gallon hydraulic oil spilled from broken hose on crane. RP listed as Shell Oil, however Noble was the operator.
ERTS 634134 03/29/2012 2 gallons diesel from tank overflow during bilge pump testing.  RP: Noble Drilling Services. (Vessel ran aground off Kodiak AK 12/31/2012)
Noble Discoverer
ERTS 634690 6/24/2012 2 gallons hydraulic oil spilled from unsecured hose. Contingency plan not followed. RP: Noble Drilling Services. (Vessel ran aground 7/14/2012 near Dutch Harbor, AK.)
Polar Pioneer
ERTS 656609 05/06/2015 3 gal spill hydraulic oil when reactivating thruster after maintenance. RP: Transocean Ltd