Tricky fuel transfer awaits tanker in Nome

HARBOR: Large blocks of ice must be removed before hose can be set.

Associated PressJanuary 13, 2012 

A Russian tanker has muscled its way through hundreds of miles of Bering Sea ice several feet thick to deliver fuel to Nome. Now comes the tricky part: getting more than a million gallons of diesel and gasoline to shore through a mile-long hose without a spill.

The problem is that Nome's harbor is iced-in, preventing the 370-foot Renda from getting to the city dock. It will have to moor offshore to transfer its 1.3 million-gallon payload across the ice and to fuel headers that feed a nearby tank farm.

"I think all of the precautions have been addressed," Nome Harbormaster Joy Baker said Friday. "I think everything that should be done has been done."

For days, operations officials have looked at how best to lay the segmented fuel hose across the shore-fast ice for the transfer. The idea is to get the tanker as close to the harbor as possible to reduce the chance of a spill.

There has been lots of anxious waiting since the ship left Russia in mid-December. It picked up diesel fuel in South Korea before traveling to Dutch Harbor, where it took on unleaded gasoline.

A Coast Guard icebreaker escorted the tanker through the Bering Sea pack ice, the two vessels at times barely crawling along as officials looked for new techniques to get the tanker free of shifting ice.

Late Thursday, the Coast Guard Cutter Healy and the Renda stopped six miles offshore to wait for daylight and figure out how to get the tanker within about a mile of the harbor so its hose will reach the dock.

Nome Mayor Denise Michels sat in her car Friday morning in record-breaking low temperatures and gazed past the harbor entrance. Her eyes focused on the lights coming from the tanker and the icebreaker just before dawn.

"It is right out there. You can see it," she said. "We are pretty excited."

The Coast Guard icebreaker began moving again late Friday morning, said University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Greg Walker, who is in Nome providing information about ice conditions near the harbor.

A lot remains to be done before the fuel transfer can occur, Walker said. The tanker needs to get positioned securely in the ice and moored so it won't move during the process. Crews also need to finish removing large boulders of ice in a rubble field and leveling large pressure ridges to create a flat surface for the transfer hose.

Once the tanker gets as close as it safely can to the city dock, the ice will have to be allowed to refreeze to keep the ship stable. Then the hose's segments will have to be bolted together and inspected before the fuel can begin to flow.

Personnel will walk the entire length of the hose every 30 minutes to check it for leaks. Each segment will have its own spill containment area and extra absorbent boom will be on hand in case of a spill.

The state is requiring that the fuel transfer be initiated only in daylight hours. The transfer can continue in darkness if there is adequate lighting and other safety considerations, said Betty Schorr, industry preparedness program manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Nome's northern latitude leaves it mostly hidden from the sun this time of year, meaning that after Friday's 11:39 a.m. sunrise, the city would have just five hours and four minutes of sunlight.

The transfer could be finished within 36 hours if everything goes smoothly but it could take as long as five days, Schorr said. If successful, it would mark the first time fuel has been delivered by sea to a Western Alaska community in winter.

A fall storm prevented Nome from getting a fuel delivery by barge in November. Without the tanker delivery, supplies of diesel fuel, gasoline and home heating fuel in Nome are expected to run out in March and April, well before a barge delivery again in late May or June.

Michels said the weather has been extremely cold this winter. The temperature in Nome dipped to 34 degrees below zero Friday, breaking the record set for that day in 1973.

In temperatures like this, the fuel really gets gobbled up quickly, she said.

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