The iced-in city of Nome on Alaska's western coast may be in luck: A Russian tanker that can plow through thick ice will try to deliver 1.5 million gallons of home heating fuel, gasoline and diesel fuel after a massive storm kept a barge from getting in before winter.
The vessel -- which is certified to travel through ice 4 feet thick for long distances -- delivers fuel to communities in the Russian Far East. The plan is for it to leave Russia this week and go to South Korea, where it will be loaded with fuel, and then travel to Nome, where it should arrive by late December.
If it can't make it into port, the tanker is equipped with a hose more than a mile long for off-loading fuel.
It could save the 3,500 residents of the coastal city from a very costly winter, including predictions of $9-a-gallon gasoline if fuel had to be flown in.
Sitnasuak Native Corp. said Monday it signed a contract with Alaska-based Vitus Marine LLC to have the double-hulled Ice Classed Russian tanker, owned by Russian company Rimsco, deliver the petroleum products.
Sitnasuak board chairman Jason Evans said if the marine tanker succeeds, it will be the first time petroleum products have been delivered by sea in winter to a western Alaska community.
"It really came down to that one vessel that could possibly do the job. It just so happens it was available at the moment we needed it," Evans said.
Sitnasuak has between 800 and 1,000 customers in Nome and was looking at a $3 to $4 per gallon increase if fuel had to be flown in. He said Monday the tanker option more than halved the increase. Fuel prices are also lower than they were a couple of months ago, he said.
Sitnasuak looked at its options after a Delta Western Inc. barge was not able to make a delivery to Nome, leaving the city short of its winter fuel supplies.
If nothing was done, supplies of gasoline and diesel, needed to run ambulances and state equipment to maintain and plow roads, were expected to reach low levels within three months. Home heating fuel was in better supply in the city, which has one other major fuel supplier.
Sitnasuak, which has been in the fuel businesses for more than 20 years, said that flying fuel to Nome would be costly. It settled on the Russian, ice-class tanker delivery plan after determining it would be much less expensive and more practical than flying fuel.
The tanker recently traveled through about 5 feet of ice to reach communities in the Russian Far East, Evans said.
Evans said it worked closely with the Coast Guard to come up with a solution to the Nome fuel problem. He said Coast Guard personnel in Tokyo will go to Vladivostok, Russia, to clear the tanker for entrance into U.S. waters. The plan is to have the tanker go to Inchon, South Korea, and then to Nome in what could be a 20-day journey.
He said the Native corporation was asking the Coast Guard on Monday if the Healy, the nation's only functioning ice breaker, could remain in Alaska waters to make sure the tanker gets to Nome.
By MARY PEMBERTON