A Russian tanker is preparing to off-load more than a million gallons of diesel and gasoline to fuel-starved Nome, but first it must position itself near the Alaska town's iced-in harbor to send that cargo through a mile-long hose without a spill.
Led by and a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, the vessel plowed through hundreds of miles of Bering Sea ice to reach Nome. It was holding steady about eight miles off shore Friday night.
The problem is Nome's harbor is iced-in, preventing the 370-foot tanker Renda from getting to the city dock. It will have to moor offshore to transfer its 1.3-million-gallon payload across the ice and to fuel headers that feed a nearby tank farm.
The Coast Guard Cutter Healy can only get so close to shore because of shallow waters.
Officials want to place the Renda "where there's enough water around it that the Healy can then break the Renda free once the delivery is done," Coast Guard spokesman David Mosley said.
"Out of the safety of the vessels, they're taking the time they need to evaluate where to put the Renda so the operation to shore can be done safely, but then so we can break them free and get them on their way afterward," he said.
For days, operations officials have looked at how best to lay the segmented fuel hose across the shore-fast ice for the transfer. The idea is to get the tanker as close to the harbor as possible to reduce the chance of a spill.
There has been a lot of anxious waiting since the ship left Russia in mid-December. It picked up diesel fuel in South Korea before traveling to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where it took on unleaded gasoline.
Late Thursday, the vessels stopped offshore and began planning the transfer.
A fall storm prevented Nome 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.
Nome Mayor Denise Michels sat in her car Friday morning in record-breaking low temperatures and gazed past the harbor entrance. Her eyes focused on the lights coming from the tanker and the icebreaker just before dawn.
"It is right out there. You can see it," she said. "We are pretty excited."
It wasn't immediately clear when the fuel transfer would begin, but University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Greg Walker said a lot remains to be done before it can occur. Walker is in Nome providing information about ice conditions near the harbor. The tanker needs to get positioned securely in the ice and moored so it won't move during the process. Crews also need to finish removing large boulders of ice in a rubble field and leveling large pressure ridges to create a flat surface for the transfer hose.
Once the tanker gets as close as it safely can to the city dock, the ice will have to be allowed to refreeze to keep the ship stable. Then, the hose's segments will have to be bolted together and inspected before the fuel can begin to flow.
Personnel will walk the entire length of the hose every 30 minutes to check it for leaks. Each segment will have its own spill containment area, and extra absorbent boom will be on hand in case of a spill.
The state is requiring that the fuel transfer be initiated only in daylight hours. The transfer can continue in darkness if there is adequate lighting and other safety considerations, said Betty Schorr, industry preparedness program manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Nome's northern latitude leaves it mostly hidden from the sun this time of year, meaning that after Friday's 11:39 a.m. sunrise, there would be just 5 hours and 4 minutes of sunlight.
The transfer could be finished within 36 hours if everything goes smoothly, but it could take as long as five days, Schorr said. If successful, it would mark the first time fuel has been delivered by sea to a Western Alaska community in winter.
Coast Guard webcam, http://bit.ly/wEsemi