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In Nome, preparations to flush a million gallons of fuel across sea ice

Ben Anderson
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy sits to the right of the Russian tanker Renda in this view from the stern of the ship.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The Renda, left, and the Healy seen from Nome's causeway on Saturday, Jan. 14.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The Russian-flagged tanker Renda, carrying more than 1.3 million gallons of fuel, sits in the ice while the Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks the ice around the tanker approximately 19 miles northwest of Nunivak Island on Jan. 6.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Russian fuel tanker Renda in Dutch Harbor, Alaska
US Coast Guard photo
Coast Guard Cutter Healy and tanker vessel Renda remain offshore as the offload of 1.3 million gallons of fuel nears completion on Jan. 18.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler
The Healy breaks ice near the Port of Nome on Saturday, January 14.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The tanker vessel Renda follows a path made in the ice by the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy Jan. 6, 2012.
Photo by Seaman Benjamin Nocerini
Pete Garay is piloting the Russian ice-breaking fuel tanker Renda in Alaska waters
Photo courtesy: Alaska Marine Pilots
A Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew lands on frozen sea ice in front of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy outside the Port of Nome on Jan. 18.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice as the sun begins to set in the Nome harbor on Jan. 13.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen
A Kodiak-based Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane crew surveys the Bering Sea ice and evaluates the progress of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy as the ship cuts a path through the ice for tanker vessel Renda on Jan. 7, 2012.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley
The view from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy's bridge during a stop in Dutch Harbor on Tuesday, January 3, 2012. The Healy will be assisting the fuel ship Renda as it makes its way to Nome.
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The city of Nome, left, and the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, right, as seen from the bridge of the Renda on Wednesday, January 18.
Photo by Stacey Smith/Vitus Marine
On Friday afternoon, the Healy maneuvers up and down Nome's coastline, in anticipation of the Renda's pending fuel delivery.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy crew breaks ice surrounding the Russian-flagged tanker Renda about 250 miles south of Nome, Alaska, Jan. 6, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Seaman Benjamin Nocerini
The double-hulled Russian ice-class vessel Renda. Sitnasuak The Native Corporation of Nome has signed a contract to have the Renda deliver 1.5 million gallons of gasoline, diesel and heating fuel to the city of Nome.
Photo courtesy RIMSCO
Two fuel transfer hoses run side-by-side from the tanker vessel Renda to the Nome harbor on Jan. 16.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy breaks ice just offshore of Nome on Friday.
Photo by Pat Hahn and Sue Greenly
An update on the Healy and Renda's progress as of 8 a.m., Jan. 7, 2012.
Illustration courtesy Vitus Marine
Coast Guard safety inspectors and their industry counterparts work with tanker vessel Renda crew members to prepare hoses for pressure tests on Jan. 16.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric J. Chandler
The Healy and the Renda off the coast of Nome at daybreak on Friday, January 13.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The Healy escorts the Russian-flagged tanker vessel Renda 250 miles south of Nome on Jan. 6, 2012. The vessels are transiting through ice up to five feet thick in this area.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis
The Renda off the coast of Nome on Monday, January 16.
Photo by Sue Greenly
The lights of the Renda and Healy were visible from Nome's causeway just after midnight on Friday, January 13th. The ships are expected to make their way closer to the city at daybreak on Friday.
Photo by Ben Matheson, KNOM Radio Mission
The Healy breaks ice for the tanker vessel Renda 250 miles south of Nome, Alaska, Jan. 6, 2012. The Renda is carrying over 1.3 million gallons of fuel supplies for delivery to the residents of Nome.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis
The Renda off the coast of Nome on Monday, January 16.
Photo by Sue Greenly
Coast Guard Forces Valdez personnel train on snow machines in the Nome harbor on Jan. 12. The Forces Valdez personnel are preparing to enforce the safety zone during the fuel transfer from the Russian tanker Renda.
Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice around the Russian-flagged tanker vessel Renda 250 miles south of Nome, Alaska, Jan. 6, 2012. The Healy is the Coast Guard's only current operating polar icebreaker.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis
Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo speaks about the Renda delivering fuel to Nome while Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski listens.
Ben Anderson photo
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy approaches the Russian-flagged tanker Renda while breaking ice around the vessel 97 miles south of Nome, Alaska on Jan. 10.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis
The Russian-flagged tanker vessel Renda 250 miles south of Nome, Alaska, as the cutter Healy makes several passes around it to break the ice on Jan. 6, 2012.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis
Approximately 3,500 Nome residents await the arrival of the 370-foot Russian tanker Renda as the Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks shore fast ice on Jan. 14.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen
Bill Walker, with the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, prepares an Aeryon Scout unmanned aerial vehicle at the Nome causeway. Walker is using the UAV to gather aerial photos and video of daily ice conditions in preparation for the planned fuel transfer during the city's fuel crisis. Jan. 10, 2012
Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen
The Renda as seen from the cutter Healy on January 6.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The Coast Guard's Healy and Renda prepare to leave Nome Jan. 20, 2012.
USCG Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst photo
Skier crosses the frozen Bering Sea ice to the Russian tanker Renda on Sunday.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission Da
Unmanned Aircraft Program Manager Greg Walker shows the transmitter for the UAV researchers are using to monitor the thickness of sea ice around Nome as the tanker vessel Renda approaches the city with 1.3 million gallons of fuel.
Photo by Matthew Smith, KNOM Radio Mission
The Healy breaks ice for the Russian-flagged tanker Renda approximately 19 miles northwest of Nunivak Island on Jan. 6, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The bow of the Renda at sunset on Wednesday.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The US Coast Guard cutter Healy offshore from Nome.
Ben Anderson photo
UAV in flight over the Nome harbor.
Photo by Matthew Smith, KNOM Radio Mission
A Healy crewmember takes a moment to watch the Russian-flagged tanker Renda steam through the ice in the North Bering Sea while the cutter crew escorts the tanker to Nome on Jan. 6, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
A member of the Renda's crew.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
Residents of Nome sit and look out at the Healy and Renda offshore on Jan. 15, 2012.
Ben Anderson photo
UAF researchers are using a UAV to monitor ice thickness around the port of Nome as the tanker vessel Renda approaches the city.
Photo by Matthew Smith, KNOM Radio Mission
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy crew breaks a path in the ice of the Bering Sea for the tanker Renda as the vessels steam toward Nome, Alaska, on Jan. 6, 2012.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The Renda offloads fuel to the city of Nome on Wednesday.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
Nome residents look out at the Renda and Healy on Jan. 15, 2012.
Ben Anderson photo
A cross-section of ice from Nome Harbor as of Jan. 11, 2012.
Photo courtesy Vitus Marine
Renda captain and crew on Jan. 5, one day before the tanker was to begin confronting Bering Sea ice.
Image courtesy: Pete Garay
A fuel line offloads the Renda's cargo on Wednesday. The Healy is in the distance at left.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy guides the Russian tanker Renda closer to the city of Nome and the fuel transfer mooring point on Saturday.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks through the Bering Sea ice 165 miles south of Nome, Alaska, on a return path to break up ice around the tanker Renda on Jan. 8.
Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy escorts the tanker Renda from Dutch Harbor to Nome on Jan. 5, 2011.
U.S.C.G. photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally
Mark Smith, CEO of Vitus Marine, stands in front of the Renda on January 18.
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission
The Healy breaks ice near the Nome on Jan. 14. The Healy is assisting the tanker Renda as it moves into final position for offloading nearly 1.3 million gallons of fuel for the city
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow
The Russian-flagged tanker Renda, carrying more than 1.3 million gallons of fuel to be delivered to Nome, Alaska, makes way through the Bering Sea ice 165 miles from the city on Jan. 8, 2012.
Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally
A Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak HC-130 Hercules aircrew conducts an overflight of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy as it escorts the tanker Renda on Jan. 5, 2012. The Healy crew is scheduled to break a path in the ice near Nome so the Renda crew can deliver fuel supplies to the city.
U.S.C.G. photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lally

NOME -- In this Northwestern Alaska town that runs up against Norton Sound, the usual white plain of sea ice that marks the ocean at this time of year has a new, jarring sight: two ships, bright red and massive, sitting less than a half-mile offshore. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy and the Russian fuel tanker Renda, after a daunting and occasionally uncertain journey spanning a week and a half, have arrived.

Sunday afternoon, there was no hose yet running from the Renda to Nome, where a 1.3 million-gallon payload of fuel will eventually be dropped. As with many aspects of the mission, this has become a waiting game, as the Renda rests in one place, allowing the ice to set hard enough around to prohibit any movement during the delicate transfer of fuel across the thick shore ice.

At a lookout point not far from the tank farm that is the fuel’s ultimate destination, residents come and go in their trucks and SUVs. Some have brought their children, others their binoculars.

One Nome resident, Jane Murphy, said that the community was just excited about the whole thing, knowing the logistics that went into getting the fuel here. Another resident sitting in his truck to avoid the subzero temperatures said it was a once-in-a-lifetime event; a lookout had been full of cars the night before as the Healy maneuvered in the darkness, carving up the ice close to shore, in search of a spot the Renda could be frozen in place but still broken free once her cargo had been offloaded.

Sunday, the only activity to be seen involved parties traveling out onto the ice in order to check its thickness or conduct other research around the ships -- trying to determine if it’s yet safe enough to begin assembling the hose that will transfer all that fuel. The fuel transfer process must begin during daylight hours, another commodity in short supply this far north, this time of year. There was an outside chance assembly would begin before nightfall, but most didn’t sound optimistic.

Coast Guard Lt. William Albright was working on maintaining a “safety zone” intended for the Renda and where the hose would run. A 50-yard perimeter will exist around the hose -- once it’s assembled, that is. His job was to keep onlookers from going out to get a closer look at the ship on potential weak spots in the ice.

“There are a few people that are curious,” Albright says, before pointing to a gap in the ice that he called a wintertime “superhighway” for subsistence hunters going after seals out on the sea ice.

“The locals have been very helpful in identifying the routes over the ice,” Albright says. “They’re the experts.”

The unusual sight of the ships on Nome’s horizon is just another step in a long odyssey: bad weather prevented the usual final delivery of fuel in November, and the process since then has consisted of hiring a tanker, getting Coast Guard assistance with icebreaking, federal waivers to expedite the process, and, of course, traveling hundreds of miles in subarctic midwinter through thick ice.

Now, it’s another “hurry up and wait” moment as the ships wait to begin transferring fuel to Nome.

During a press event Sunday, representatives from numerous government agencies -- along with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell -- heaped praise on one another for their respective roles in the mission.

While it was a bit of a love-fest, the interagency cooperation has indeed been significant.

“The current operation is over years of relationship building that Coast Guard and everyone has done to make these things possible when you have a crisis,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo said. “This is historic in a lot of ways … but it’s also only the halfway point.”

Meanwhile, other groups were thinking ahead to the other half, including the upcoming fuel transfer. John Kotula, manager of marine vessels for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said in addition to amending the spill contingency plan for Vitus Marine, the shipping company that hired the Renda to operate in the conditions in the Nome harbor, the DEC was taking numerous precautions to prevent or contain any potential mishaps that might occur during the fuel transfer.

“There are tactics designed to recover oil in these types of conditions,” Kotula said. “We’ve done a lot of preparatory work on the ice. We had an ice road made, made up of snow for the most part, so that acts as an absorbent type of material in case we did have a spill.” The hose will lay atop that road, Kotula said. The road also allowed them to pre-stage equipment that will allow for fast response in the case of a spill.

It’s not an entirely unique spill response setup, since they’ve used tactics similar to what they would use in the Nome Harbor on other spills on frozen tundra farther north. But the sea ice scenario is one that has been a hot topic recently with the potential for offshore oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic.

When the switch finally is flipped to begin the flow of fuel to Nome, it’s just the beginning of another long process. The fuel transfer will take 36 hours as an optimistic estimate -- and it could be much longer, Kotula said.

And then the Healy and Renda will turn around and complete their journey again in the opposite direction, which presents a whole other set of challenges. Fortunately, according to Vitus Marine CEO Mark Smith, the currents flowing south will prove helpful on the trip back down, instead of fighting them as the ships did on the way to Nome.

“If everything else goes wrong, if we get out into the currents of the Bering Sea, in a matter of weeks we could be flushed out and down to the Pribilof (Islands),” Smith said.

But "this will probably be a 40-day-plus operation" for the crews of the Healy and Renda, who already missed their respective Christmas holidays to complete this mission, Smith said.

The Healy will return to its home port of Seattle; the Renda will return to Vladivostok, Russia. Whether it will be days or weeks before that happens remains to be seen.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com