A Russian tanker carrying fuel for an iced-in Alaska city that without a delivery could run out of crucial supplies before winter's end encountered ice early Friday in the eastern Bering Sea.
The ice was not a surprise. The 370-foot tanker Renda will have to go through more than 300 miles of sea ice to get to Nome, a city of about 3,500 people on the western Alaska coastline that did not get its last pre-winter fuel delivery because of a massive storm.
If the delivery of diesel fuel and unleaded gasoline is not made, the city likely will run short of fuel supplies before another barge delivery can be made in spring.
If the mission is successful, it will be the first time petroleum products have been delivered by sea to a Western Alaska community in winter.
The Coast Guard said the Russian tanker came upon ice about a foot thick very early Friday near Nunivak Island, a large island in the eastern Bering Sea. The tanker is following the Healy, the Coast Guard's only functioning icebreaker -- a ship of special design with a reinforced hull made to move through ice.
The icebreaker should have no problem getting through the ice even if it becomes several feet thick, said Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class David Mosley.
"In the worst-case scenario, it might stop and back up and ram their way through the pressure ridges, where it gets really thick," he said.
The icebreaker is creating a path through the ice for the tanker.
The Renda left Russia in mid-December after the barge delivery of 1.6 million gallons of fuel failed and Nome became iced-in for the winter.
The tanker is carrying more than 1 million gallons of diesel fuel loaded in South Korea and 300,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline picked up in Dutch Harbor in southwestern Alaska.
Sitnasuak Native Corp., the company that eventually signed a contract with Vitus Marine LLC to have a tanker delivery, considered flying supplies to Nome but decided against that plan because of the cost and the possibility fuel prices could jump to $9 a gallon. The tanker delivery is expected to be more costly than by barge but not as expensive as air delivery.
The Native corporation is a major fuel supplier to the city, with between 800 and 1,000 customers including the hospital and schools.
"I think everything is going smoothly," Jason Evans, Sitnasuak's board chairman, said Friday afternoon.
The tanker is expected to arrive in Nome early Monday.
By MARY PEMBERTON