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Heavy Bering Sea ice slows delivery of fuel to Nome

Mary Pemberton
The Russian tanker Renda transits through broken Bering Sea ice Jan. 9, 2012. The Coast Guard Cutter Healy is breaking ice and escorting the Renda to the remote village of Nome to deliver 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products to Nome residents.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy and the Renda are approximately 110 miles south of Nome when this image was made Jan. 9, 2012, and are expected to arrive in Nome in the near future.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The Russian-flagged tanker Renda steams toward Nome, Alaska, through a path in the Bering Sea ice broken up by the Coast Guard Cutter Healy Jan. 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
A Coast Guard Cutter 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 Jan. 6, 2012. The 420-foot Seattle-based Healy is the Coast Guard's newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker and is currently the service's only operational polar icebreaker.
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy crew breaks ice in the Bering Sea as the Russian-flagged tanker Renda, approximately 19 miles northwest of Nunivak Island, makes their way to Nome, Alaska, to deliver more than 1.3 million gallons of fuel to the city Jan. 6, 2012. The 420-foot Seattle-based Healy and tanker Renda are approximately 19 miles northwest of Nunivak Island. U.S. Coast Guard photo by cutter Healy.
U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy escorts the Russian-flagged tanker Renda 250 miles south of Nome Jan. 6, 2012. The vessels are transiting through ice up to five-feet thick in this area.
Photo courtesy Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis / U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice around the Russian-flagged tanker Renda 250 miles south of Nome Jan. 6, 2012. The Healy is the Coast Guard's only currently operating polar icebreaker.
Photo courtesy Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis / U.S. Coast Guard
The Russian-flagged tanker Renda carrying more than 1.3 million gallons of fuel for the city of Nome steams through a path in the ice of the Bering Sea Jan. 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Shifting ice in the Bering Sea is dramatically slowing a Russian tanker's mission to deliver fuel to the iced-in community of Nome.

A Coast Guard spokesman said Monday that an icebreaker and a fuel tanker are encountering "some really dynamic ice" that is slowing the mission and sometimes forcing both vessels to come to a complete stop.

But, "As long as we're making progress, we're going to Nome," said Anchorage Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley.

A worst-case scenario would be that the ice becomes too much for any progress. But Mosley doubts that would be the case since the Coast Guard cutter Healy has the ability to make it all the way to Nome.

Jason Evans, chairman of Sitnasuak Native Corp., the company arranging for the fuel delivery by Russian tanker, had no qualms Monday.

"I think we are getting to Nome," he said, adding that he will be there for the arrival.

Nome is in need of diesel and unleaded gasoline after a fall fuel delivery by barge was delayed by a storm that swept Western Alaska. By the time the weather had improved, Nome was iced in and a barge delivery was impossible.

In late November, when a plan to fly fuel into Nome was being considered, a gallon of gas was selling for $5.98 but that plan was scuttled when estimates showed it could cause a spike in prices to $9.

If the tanker mission fails, the plan to fly in fuel will have to be revived, Evans said.

The Healy, an icebreaker designed to move through ice several feet thick, is leading the 370-foot Renda, a Russian tanker loaded with 1.3 million gallons of petroleum products.

The plan was for the two ships to deliver fuel to Nome on Monday but because of the icy conditions, that arrival date is off. Coast Guard officials are not saying when they expect the vessels to arrive but it could be later this week.

"The dynamics of things make it a pretty intense transit," Cmdr. Greg Tlapa, the executive officer of the Healy, told The Associated Press by satellite phone Monday afternoon as the icebreaker was about 111 miles south-southwest of Nome.

He described conditions outside the Healy's bridge much like the surface of the moon: nearly 100 percent snow coverage, occasional ridging and "lots of rubble all around."

The Healy is trying to keep the Renda 0.3 miles behind the Coast Guard cutter as it breaks through 3 feet of ice. But the ice conditions are changing constantly and when they reach heavier ice, the path is closing between the two ships.

In those cases, the Healy doubles back and cuts a release path by the Renda, then makes another pass, usually about half the distance from the relief cut.

"The relief cut relaxes the ice pressure around them and allows them to fall in astern of us, and we pick it up from there," Tlapa said.

"That's been the dance so far," he said, calling the scale of this mission unprecedented for the Coast Guard in the Arctic.

The ships are in constant communication, with the Healy relaying over VHF radio any speed or propulsion changes and what they are seeing ahead. An active duty Coast Guardsman on the Healy is fluent in Russian, Tlapa said. An Alaska marine pilot is on board the Renda and the vessel agent speaks English.

"It's slow and steady but we're making good progress," Tlapa said.

When the tanker and the icebreaker are working well, they move at about 5 mph. Lt. Bernard Auth, at the District 17 command center in Juneau, said Monday the ships were averaging less than half that, about 2 mph through ice.

The tanker left Russia in mid-December and picked up more than 1 million gallons of diesel fuel in South Korea. When a plan to pick up gasoline in Japan didn't work out, the ship received a waiver of federal law allowing the foreign vessel to dock in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, where it picked up 300,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline.

Nome has enough fuel for now and is not in dire need. However, if the delivery is not made the community probably will run short of certain petroleum products and could be forced to wait for a thaw to refuel.

It appears the community has enough home heating fuel but Evans said without a delivery it is possible Nome could run out before the next barge delivery in June or early July.

Executive Officer of the Healy explains the expedition

Coast Guard cutter pushes loudly through Bering Sea ice.

Webcam on Coast Guard icebreaker Healy
By MARY PEMBERTON
Associated Press