By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A Russian tanker finished pumping an emergency shipment of 1.3 million gallons of fuel to shore in the ice-bound port of Nome, Alaska, on Thursday and prepared to head home, officials said.
Alaskans contracted the Renda, a 370-foot ice-class tanker owned by the Russian company RIMSCO, after a missed autumn fuel delivery left Nome short on fuel in the dead of winter, when the port freezes over.
The Russian vessel and its U.S. Coast Guard escort, the icebreaking cutter Healy, were expected to depart Nome on Friday, a Coast Guard spokesman said.
"They are done offloading," Coast Guard spokesman David Mosley said. "The anticipated departure is scheduled for tomorrow."
It will be up to the ships' captains to determine when to disembark, a task that involves breaking the Renda out of ice that has enclosed the tanker during the fuel transfer at Nome's harbor, Mosley said.
Once free of the frozen port, the Healy will lead the Renda through some 360 miles of sea ice to the open waters of the Bering Sea, the Coast Guard said.
The Nome area, home to less than 10,000 people, is about 200 miles from the nearest point in Russia.
The shipment, which took about a month to reach Nome, marked the first winter marine delivery of fuel to northwestern Alaska, according to the Coast Guard and state officials.
Nome, like most communities in rural Alaska, has no outside road access. The region normally gets fuel and other cargo shipped by barge during the open-water seasons of summer and fall.
The Russian vessel was chartered to deliver 1.3 million gallons of diesel and gasoline to the Bering Sea city to make up for a missed autumn fuel delivery.
Cancellation of that fall barge shipment, blamed on bad weather, put the city in danger of running out of fuel in late winter or paying extremely high prices for fuel that would otherwise have to be flown in, state officials said.
Governor Sean Parnell deemed the mission a success.
"The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy performed capably and with great skill under extreme conditions," Parnell said in a statement.
"Thanks to the Coast Guard, residents in Nome will avoid facing a fuel shortage that would have resulted in financial hardship for many families and businesses," he said.
Critics questioned whether the overall cost of the Renda mission, including the use of Coast Guard resources, outweighed the savings of avoiding airborne shipments used to reach other remote Alaska villages.
Some Alaska officials said the Renda fuel delivery and the Healy's escort role highlighted the need for the Coast Guard to improve its Arctic icebreaking capacity and participation in increased shipping in the region.
The Renda began its mission from Vladivostok, Russia, and stopped in South Korea to pick up diesel fuel, then joined the Healy at the Aleutian Island port of Dutch Harbor, where it was loaded with gasoline cargo for the final leg of the voyage to Nome.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Daniel Trotta)