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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

UPDATE: Congressman Seeks Answers In Arctic Oil-Spill Gear's Failure

Damaged oil-spill containment dome
BSEE (via KUOW FOIA request)

A KUOW investigation has led a top congressman to demand answers about Shell Oil's underwater accident this fall in Puget Sound.

As we reported on Friday, an underwater test near Anacortes left Shell's first-of-its-kind oil-spill equipment “crushed like a beer can.”

That vivid description came from the internal email of a federal official who witnessed the test. Mark Fesmire of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement also said that Shell's 20-foot steel containment dome surfaced suddenly and "breached like a whale" before sinking 120 feet into Puget Sound.

Shell needs BSEE's approval of its oil-spill system before it can drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

Fesmire, the head of BSEE's Alaska region, told KUOW he couldn't do an interview without the approval of BSEE spokesman Nicholas Pardi in Washington, DC. Pardi declined repeated requests to interview Fesmire and referred questions about the failed test to Shell.

Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh also declined to answer KUOW's questions.

KUOW obtained Fesmire's emails by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.

In a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said on Wednesday that the failed test raises "troubling questions about whether Shell can drill safely" in the Arctic.

Markey, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for a full explanation of the accident:

Given the failure of this test of Shell's containment dome, what additional measures will Shell be required to undertake prior to drilling into hydrocarbon bearing zones offshore in the Arctic? Will Shell be required to successfully demonstrate that its containment device can operate as intended in actual Arctic conditions, given its failure in relatively calm water and a predictable environment, before it is allowed to drill into hydrocarbon bearing zones offshore in the Arctic? If not, why not?

Shell wouldn’t say what it’s doing to fix its damaged equipment or when it would be ready for a next round of testing. But the company says it will be ready for next summer’s drilling season off the north coast of Alaska.

Emails obtained by KUOW between Mark Fesmire, the head of BSEE’s Alaska office, and a colleague at BSEE.

Year started with KUOW: 2009