ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Crews have laid a hose along a half mile stretch of Bering Sea ice and were hoping Monday to soon begin transferring 1.3 million gallons of fuel from a Russian fuel tanker to the iced-in western Alaska city of Nome.
The offloading could begin before sundown Monday, said Stacey Smith of Vitus Marine, the fuel supplier that arranged to have the Russian tanker Renda and its crew deliver the gasoline and diesel fuel.
Crews were working on hooking the arctic-rated hose to a shore-side pipeline leading to storage tanks in town, Smith said.
State officials said the transfer must start during daylight, but can continue in darkness after that. Nome has just five hours of daylight this time of year.
The transfer could be finished within 36 hours if everything goes smoothly, but it could take as long as five days.
The Renda is moored roughly a half-mile from Nome's harbor after a Coast Guard icebreaker cleared a path for it through hundreds of miles of a slow journey stalled by thick ice and strong ocean currents.
Smith said the effort is a third of the way into completion with the arrival of the Renda to Nome. Pumping the fuel from the tanker will be the second part. The third part will be the exiting through ice by the two ships.
"It's just been an absolutely grand collaboration by all parties involved," she said of the work accomplished so far.
The city of 3,500 didn't get its last pre-winter barge fuel delivery because of a massive November storm.
Without the Renda's delivery, Nome would run out of fuel by March or April, long before the next barge delivery is possible after one of the most severe Alaska winters in decades.
The 370-foot tanker began its journey from Russia in mid-December, picking up diesel fuel in South Korea before heading to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where it took on unleaded gasoline. It arrived late last week off Nome on Alaska's west coast more than 500 miles from Anchorage.
In total, the tanker traveled an estimated 5,000 miles, said Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander of District Seventeen with the Coast Guard.
Before the fuel transfer begins, the segmented hose will be pressurized to check for leaks, said Jason Evans, board chairman of the Sitnasuak Native Corp., which owns the local fuel company, Bonanza Fuel and has been working closely with Vitus Marine.
"We hope to be pumping fuel this afternoon," he said Monday.
The Coast Guard is monitoring the effort, working with state, federal, local and tribal representatives, said Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow. The fuel participants had to submit a plan to state environmental regulators on how they intended to get the fuel off the Renda, he said.
"We want to make sure the fuel transfer from the Renda to the onshore storage facility is conducted in as safe a manner as possible," he said.
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 to lay the hose.
Evans said once the hose was laid, personnel would walk its entire length every 30 minutes to check for leaks. Each segment of hose has its own spill containment area, and extra absorbent boom will be on hand in case of a spill.