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Ice halts delivery of winter fuel to Nome, Alaska

December 2, 2011 |  1:15 pm

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Lots of Americans are worried about gas prices this holiday season, but the town of Nome, Alaska, is facing a unique problem: With the community's small port locked in ice, the barge hauling the big winter-fuel delivery can't make it into town.

City officials were still scrambling, working with the U.S. Coast Guard on Friday to figure out a work-around. Unless an ice breaker can be deployed to chop through the foot-thick ice, Nome's 3,600 residents might have to fly in fuel -- and pay up to $9 a gallon at the pump for the privilege.

"Right now we're working with the Coast Guard and the local fuel vendor here to look at our options with the ice coverage and thickness, and seeing about the Coast Guard kind of creating a path for a fuel barge to make it to Nome in the next few weeks," City Manager Josie Bahnke said in an interview. "We're trying to kind of be as creative as possible."

Alaska's remote bush communities typically haul in fuel for gasoline and home heating furnaces by barge, because few towns are connected to roads. But the onset of winter sea ice makes barge deliveries all but impossible.

Nome's shipment was headed for port in early November ahead of the deep freeze but got waylaid by the powerful autumn storm that swept in from the Bering Sea, bringing high seas and hurricane-force winds.

Now, the barge loaded with 1.6 million gallons of fuel is anchored at Kachemak Bay, about a two weeks' sail from Nome. And the Coast Guard's only functioning ice breaker, the Healy, is deployed (near Nome, as a matter of fact) on a scientific mission.

The problem is only one of a growing number facing the Coast Guard as warmer global temperatures bring increased shipping traffic to the Alaskan Arctic.

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, has not had funds to deploy new icebreakers. Two of the Coast Guard's three aging icebreakers are undergoing repairs in Seattle. One is likely to be mothballed completely in order to free up funds to fully renovate the other.

"This pending fuel shortage in rural Alaska highlights the lack of Coast Guard ice breaking capability in the state," U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said in a letter about Nome's situation to the Coast Guard on Thursday. Begich has introduced legislation that would require the Coast Guard to operate at least two heavy-duty icebreakers.

"The Coast Guard is aware of the fuel situation in Nome and the importance of getting them their fuel so they can make it through the winter. Right now, we're working closely with the city to identify options to get the fuel in there," Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow of the Coast Guard's Juneau headquarters told The Times.

But steaming the Healy to Nome's rescue would only begin to solve the problem, Wadlow said: Nome's harbor is so shallow that the Healy could only open up a path to within about a mile offshore. "The barge would still be a mile out," he said.

Coast Guard officials now are talking with the city about how to get the fuel the rest of the way in, possibly by using a commercial vessel with a shallower draft.

Bahnke said the town is not facing a life-threatening emergency. The city still has fuel for the moment, and even if the winter supplies can't be delivered by sea, the city could fly them in, albeit at such an expense that gasoline prices would likely soar from their current $5.40 a gallon to perhaps $9.

The city is seeking reassurances that the state -- as it has in many past winter fuel emergencies, which aren't all that rare in Alaska -- would step in, in that case, with financial help.

"Everybody's just trying to have hope," Bahnke said. "Until we hear otherwise."

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-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: Ice chunks pile up near a seafood processing plant in Nome, Alaska. Credit: Peggy Fagerstrom/Associated Press

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