ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A Russian tanker and its crew have begun offloading more than a million gallons of fuel to an iced-in city along the western coast of Alaska.
Two parallel hoses, 700 yards long each, are stretched between the tanker Renda and a pipeline that will deliver the fuel to storage tanks in the city of Nome. One is carrying gasoline, the other diesel fuel.
The transfer could be finished within 36 hours or it could take as long as five days. It started near sundown Monday, after crews laid the hoses along a stretch of Bering Sea ice to the pipeline that begins on a rock causeway 550 yards from the tanker, said Jason Evans, board chairman of the Sitnasuak Native Corp.
Sitnasuak owns the local fuel company, Bonanza Fuel, and has been working closely with Vitus Marine, the supplier that arranged for the delivery of the 1.3 million gallons of fuel.
State officials said the transfer must start during daylight, but can continue in darkness. Nome has just five hours of daylight this time of year.
The city of 3,500 didn't get its last pre-winter barge fuel delivery because of a massive November storm. Without the Renda's delivery, Nome would run out of fuel by March or April, long before the next barge delivery is possible.
Alaska has had one of the most severe winters in decades. Snow has piled up 10 feet or higher against the wood-sided buildings in Nome, a former gold rush town that is the final stop on the 1,150-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The Renda began its journey from Russia in mid-December, picking up diesel fuel in South Korea before heading to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where it took on unleaded gasoline. It arrived last week off Nome on Alaska's west coast, more than 500 miles from Anchorage.
A Coast Guard icebreaker cleared a path for the 370-foot tanker through hundreds of miles of a slow journey stalled by thick ice and strong ocean currents. In total, the tanker traveled an estimated 5,000 miles, said Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander of District Seventeen with the Coast Guard.
"It's just been an absolutely grand collaboration by all parties involved," said Stacey Smith of Vitus Marine, the fuel supplier.
Smith said the effort is a third of the way over with the arrival of the Renda near Nome. Pumping the fuel from the tanker will be the second part. The third part will be the exiting through ice by the two ships.
Personnel will walk the entire length of hosing every 30 minutes to check for leaks, Evans said. Each segment has its own containment area, and extra absorbent boom will be on hand.
The Coast Guard is monitoring the effort, working with state, federal, local and tribal representatives, Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow said. The fuel participants had to submit a plan to state environmental regulators on how they intended to get the fuel off the Renda, he said.
"We want to make sure the fuel transfer from the Renda to the onshore storage facility is conducted in as safe a manner as possible," he said.