A Russian tanker carrying much-needed fuel to Nome moored less than a half mile from the town's iced-in harbor Saturday evening, starting final preparations for delivering the diesel fuel and gasoline, the Coast Guard said.
The crew of the 370-foot tanker Renda is working to ensure the safe transfer of the 1.3-million gallons of fuel through a segmented hose laid on top of the ice to the harbor, Coast Guard spokesman Kip Wadlow said.
The U.S Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which cleared a path through hundreds of miles of Bering Sea ice for the tanker, is moored nearby.
"We were able to successfully navigate that last bit of ice," Wadlow said in a phone interview from Nome. "We were able to get it pretty much right on the money, in the position that the industry representatives wanted to start the fuel transfer process."
Wadlow said he doesn't know how long it will be before fuel is flowing through the hose.
Crew must wait 12 hours to ensure that all the disturbed ice has refrozen. At that point, they will have to build some sort of road or pathway over the ice for the hose to rest on.
There has been a lot 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. Late Thursday, the vessels stopped offshore and began planning the transfer.
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 Nome would be expected to run out in March and April, well before a barge delivery again in late May or June.
Earlier Saturday, Sitnasuak Native Corp. board chairman Jason Evans provided details of the transfer process.
Once the hose is laid down, he said personnel will walk its entire length every 30 minutes to check it for leaks. Each segment of hose will have its own spill containment area, and extra absorbent boom will be on hand in case of a spill.
Evans said he hopes the crew will begin unloading the fuel by today.
"It's kind of like a football game, we're on the five yard line and we just want to work into the goal line," said Evans, whose hometown is Nome.
Evans, however, cautioned that delivering the fuel is only half the mission.
"The ships need to transition back through 300 miles of ice," he said. "I say we're not done until the ships are safely back at their home ports (in Seattle and Russia)."