ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The ice that has cut off a remote Alaska town for months will connect it to the world again as crews prepare to build a path over it to carry fuel from a Russian tanker that was moored roughly a half mile from the town's harbor Sunday.
A Coast Guard cutter cleared a path through hundreds of miles of Bering Sea ice for the tanker as it made its way toward the town of 3,500 on Alaska's western coastline, where residents are coping with their coldest winter since the 1970s.
The tanker got into position Saturday night, and ice disturbed by its journey had to freeze again so workers could create some sort of roadway across the 2,100 feet from tanker to the harbor in Nome, upon which they'll rest a hose that will transfer 1.3 million gallons of fuel. It'll take about four hours to lay the hose, said Jason evans, board chairman of the Sitnasuak Native Corp.
Workers on Sunday morning were walking around the vessel and checking the ice to make sure it is safe for the transfer.
A storm prevented Nome's 3,500 residents from getting a fuel delivery by barge in November. Without the tanker delivery, supplies of diesel fuel, gasoline and home heating fuel Nome are expected to run out in March and April, well before a barge delivery again in late May or June.
The tanker began its journey from Russia in mid-December and has slowly made its way toward Nome, stalled by thick ice, strong ocean currents and one Alaska's snowiest winters in memory. It picked up diesel fuel in South Korea, then headed to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where it took on unleaded gasoline. Late Thursday, the vessels stopped offshore and began planning the transfer to Nome, more than 500 miles from Anchorage on Alaska's west coast.
Now, residents await the final leg of the crew's mission, which comes with its own hurdles: In addition to waiting for the ice to freeze, crews must begin the transfer in daylight, a state mandate. But Nome has just five hours of daylight this time of year.
Despite the complicated logistics of delivering fuel by sea in winter, Sitnasuak opted for the extra delivery after determining that it would be much less costly and more practical than flying fuel to Nome.
A Coast Guard spokesman didn't know how long it will be before fuel flows as crews must wait 12 hours, or until about 5 a.m. local time Sunday (6 a.m. Pacific), to ensure that the disturbed ice has refrozen.
"We were able to successfully navigate that last bit of ice," Coast Guard spokesman Kip Wadlow said. "We were able to get it pretty much right on the money, in the position that the industry representatives wanted to start the fuel transfer process."
The crew of the 370-foot tanker Renda was working to ensure the safe transfer of the fuel through a segmented hose that will be laid on top of the ice to the harbor, located about 2,100 feet from the ship, Wadlow said in a telephone interview from Nome on Saturday night.
Once crews create a suitable path for the hose to rest on, its segments will have to be bolted together and inspected before the fuel can begin to flow.
Though the transfer must start during daylight, it can continue in darkness, Betty Schorr of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has said. It could be finished within 36 hours if everything goes smoothly, but it could take as long as five days, she said.
Evans said once the hose is laid down, personnel will walk its entire length every 30 minutes to check it for leaks. Each segment of hose will have its own spill containment area, and extra absorbent boom will be on hand in case of a spill.
Evans, however, cautioned that delivering the fuel is only half the mission.
"The ships need to transition back through 300 miles of ice," he said. "I say we're not done until the ships are safely back at their home ports" in Seattle and Russia.
Coast Guard webcam, http://bit.ly/wEsemi