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Alaska fuel delivery: Crews primed to unload at icy journey's end

January 16, 2012 |  4:20 pm

Crews in Nome, Alaska, were hoping by Monday's end to begin pumping the first of 1.4 million gallons of fuel through an offshore hose, the final step in an arduous effort to deliver winter fuel supplies to the ice-locked town on Alaska's western coast.

More than 700 yards of hose were carefully laid across the ice from the Russian tanker that pulled outside Nome's harbor over the weekend. By early Monday, the hose was latched onto the onshore pipeline connected to the town's fuel storage tanks.

"This morning, they were making sure the hose was as straight as could be, without any kinks of any kind," said Stacey Smith, spokeswoman for Vitus Marine LLC, which is in charge of the transport.

"Laying the hose required a whole bunch of coordination between the Russia crew, some [National Guard] track vehicles, half a dozen snowmobiles and a very enthusiastic group of employees and workers,"  Smith said in an interview.

By Monday afternoon, crews were conducting air pressure tests to make sure the hose was secure and free of leaks. Pumping could commence by the end of Monday, Smith said, though she said workers might have to wait until Tuesday morning if final testing isn't completed on time.

Officials estimate that it will take about 36 hours to offload the entire shipment, a process that -- once completed -- will mark the first successful winter delivery of fuel to a northern Alaskan town.

Nome's normal autumn fuel delivery was waylaid by a major storm in the Bering Sea, leaving an unusual journey through hundreds of miles of sea ice as the only way to avoid the expense of flying in winter fuel supplies. That option could have raised gasoline prices to $9 a gallon.

The 300-mile journey through the ice was often slow going, as the tanker and an accompanying U.S. Coast Guard ice breaker battled high winds, sub-zero temperatures and, at the end, a massive ice ridge blocking access to the harbor.

Over the past two days, residents of the remote town of 3,500 have been gathering onshore to watch the final maneuvering, and posting photos of the two vessels looming outside the icy harbor.

Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow, spokesman for the Coast Guard in Nome, told the Los Angeles Times that the Coast Guard cutter Healy will remain on site until the delivery is complete, then escort the Renda, based in Vladivostok, back to open water.


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Photo: The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice near the city of Nome. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow/AFP/Getty Images. Video: U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice for the Russian-flagged tanker Renda. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard