A Russian tanker that went on an ocean odyssey of 5,000 miles to deliver fuel to the iced-in city of Nome was offloading the gasoline and diesel in what officials say is smooth sailing so far, with one possible problem avoided.
Two parallel hoses, 700 yards long each, are stretched between the tanker Renda and a pipeline that will deliver 1.3 million gallons of fuel to storage tanks near the harbor. The offloading began with gasoline, and then both gasoline and diesel were being transferred separately.
Jason Evans, board chairman of Sitnasuak Native Corp., the company that arranged for the fuel delivery, said Tuesday the tanker's two hoses are pumping between 30,000 and 40,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel an hour.
One section of hose had to be switched out early Tuesday morning when a suspected bubble occurred in the line, Evans said. The change-out went smoothly, and there have been no spills since the pumping operation began Monday evening.
This is the first time petroleum products have been delivered to a Western Alaska community by sea in winter. The mayor said festivities were planned, including a Coast Guard helicopter landing on the beach so children can look inside. They also set a basketball game between residents and Coast Guard crew members, and the city invited the crew to a pizza dinner.
"It is our way to show our appreciation and how grateful we are and what they did for us," said Mayor Denise Michels.
The transfer could take from 36 hours to 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, Evans said.
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 had to 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.
The Renda began its journey from Russia in mid-December, picking up diesel fuel in South Korea before heading to Dutch Harbor, 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.