By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - An ice-breaking Russian tanker won an exemption from U.S. maritime law on Friday allowing it to deliver fuel to the isolated Alaska city of Nome, the state's two U.S. senators announced.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security granted a Jones Act waiver to the Russian ship, the Renda, which is scheduled to deliver diesel fuel and gasoline to the Alaska city of 3,600 people, the senators said.
Senator Mark Begich said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano responded to pleas for a Jones Act exception to help alleviate what could be a serious winter fuel shortage.
"This is great news for Nome residents who either faced a long, cold winter or soaring energy costs," Begich said in a written statement.
"This decision also recognizes Nome's key strategic position adjacent to the Bering Straits as well as the Coast Guard's need for maintained facilities to monitor our northern border," he said.
If successful, the voyage will provide the first ever marine delivery of petroleum products to a western Alaska city in winter, officials said.
Nome, which has no outside road connections and relies on marine vessels or aircraft for shipment of goods, missed its last regular fall delivery of 1.6 million gallons of fuel.
The problem was attributed to bad weather, including a severe November storm that was considered the worst to hit northwestern Alaska in decades.
With the onset of winter, Nome is now ice-locked, Begich said. The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, which is more powerful than the Russian ship, is scheduled to guide the tanker into Nome, he said.
The Renda is carrying about 1 million gallons of Arctic-grade diesel that was loaded in Korea and is scheduled to pick up 300,000 to 400,000 gallons of gasoline at the Alaska port of Dutch Harbor, said Mark Smith, chief executive of Vitus Marine, the Anchorage-based company that arranged for the Russian ship to make the special delivery.
But in order for any foreign-flagged ship to deliver product from one U.S. port to another, a Jones Act waiver is needed, Begich said.
The Renda is currently about 150 miles south of Attu, the last island in Alaska's Aleutian chain, Smith said. It is expected to reach Dutch Harbor on about January 2, where U.S. Coast Guard safety inspections will be conducted as well as gasoline loading, he said.
The expected date for arrival in Nome is the second week of January, Smith said.
Senator Lisa Murkowski said the Jones Act waiver was an important milestone, but that much more needs to be done to make the delivery a success.
"Today is an important step in providing certainty to the Seward Peninsula region, in terms of heat and affordable heating prices through the winter, but it is only a step. We literally have hundreds of miles to go before resolution," Murkowski said in a statement.
The Renda, owned by the Russian company RIMSCO, is an ice-class vessel certified to travel through four feet of ice. The Healy, the Coast Guard's most powerful icebreaker, has been diverted from its journey to home port in Seattle in order to assist the Renda's delivery.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Bohan)