By Victoria Cavaliere
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Six older women were detained by Seattle police on Tuesday during a protest to block access to a Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig that activists believe may depart this week to resume fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic, authorities said.
The six, members of an activist group known as the Seattle Raging Grannies, were questioned and released by police after blocking railroad tracks near the Port of Seattle, police spokesman Patrick Michaud said.
About two dozen other protesters had left the port but were expected back on Wednesday, he said.
Over the past month, activists have staged frequent demonstrations against Shell's plans to drill for oil in the Arctic, including one on May 16 when hundreds of protesters in kayaks and small boats fanned out on a Seattle bay.
Environmental groups say drilling in the icy Arctic, where weather changes rapidly, could lead to a catastrophic spill, and that drilling would threaten the region's vast layer of sea ice that helps regulate global temperatures and which they say is already disappearing due to global warming.
One of the groups organizing the protests, ShellNo, said on its website that the rig, the Polar Pioneer, could begin moving north as early as Wednesday. Shell said it had not yet set a firm departure date.
"Work continues as planned in preparation for the Polar Pioneer’s departure to Alaska," Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said in an email. "The rig and its crew will depart Puget Sound when the ongoing load-out is complete."
Shell has not drilled in the Arctic since a mishap-filled 2012 season, when it was forced to evacuate its Kulluk drill rig, which eventually ran aground.
Activists say they want to launch boats once they learn the rig is leaving the terminal. A mandatory safety zone enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard will keep watercraft at least 100 yards (90 meters) away from the rig. That zone will expand to 500 yards (460 meters) when it hits Puget Sound.
A spokesman for the Port of Seattle said work at Terminal 5, where the rig is housed, had resumed as normal on Tuesday.
A day earlier, Seattle police dismantled a large tent used by demonstrators to organize the launch of a planned protest flotilla.
Late last month, Alaska Governor Bill Walker toured the rig, saying Shell’s resumption of drilling in the Arctic will bring jobs and money to his state.
(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)