Russian tanker reaches ice-bound Alaskan port

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 13, 2012 9:38 PM
Russian tanker reaches ice-bound Alaskan port

By Alissa de Carbonnel

MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian tanker escorted by the U.S. Coast Guard reached the frozen Alaskan port of Nome with emergency fuel supplies on Friday after a 10-day voyage through ice-choked seas, the Russian company that owns the vessel said.

The mission to Nome is the first mid-winter marine delivery to western Alaska and comes as oil and gas development and climate change increase commercial traffic along trade routes in the Arctic.

The Russian ship, the Renda, got an exemption last month from U.S. maritime law for the journey, after the city of 3,600 residents missed its final scheduled barge delivery before winter when one of the worst storms in decades swept the northwest coastal town.

"The Renda has reached Nome. It has stopped 8 miles out at the edge of the ice. People are relieved and resting now. It is night there now," Fazil Aliyev, the general director of the Russian shipping firm that owns the Renda, told Reuters.

"We will start offloading (fuel) in the morning," he said by telephone from Russia's Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok where the company, RIMSCO, is based.

The Renda is carrying about 1.3 million gallons of Arctic-grade diesel and gasoline, according to Vitus Marine, the Anchorage-based company that arranged for the special delivery.

Even with the U.S. Coast Guard's only functioning icebreaker, the Healy, slicing a path for the Renda through Bering Sea ice as thick as 24 inches, slow progress had raised doubts about whether it would reach the port.

Emergency deliveries by air, an expensive undertaking, would have been needed if the Renda had failed to get to Nome.

David Mosley, an Anchorage-based spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard, said offloading is expected to take about two days.

"We've taken the time we needed to safely get to Nome. We're going to take the time we need so we don't have any injuries or any environmental problems," Mosley said.

"We don't want to have an incident, and we don't want to have a spill into the environment," he added.

Mosley said the Renda would remain at least half a mile from shore, due to the shallow depth of Nome's harbor. Fuel will be delivered to Nome by hose, he said.

The Renda herself has cut across Russia's Arctic coastline several times this year from Europe and Asia. As Arctic ice receded to its second-lowest point on record last summer, Aliyev said RIMSCO took a tanker through the Northern Sea Route as late as November.

"This is routine work for us," he said of the Renda's trip. Only a cautious approach taken by the U.S. Coast Guard and lack of icebreaker experience slowed the Renda's journey, he said.

"There are many places were we could have easily moved through (the ice) but we are following coast guards' orders. If they say we have to stand still at night, we wait," Aliyev said.

(Additional reporting by Yereth Rosen; Editing by Tim Gaynor)