ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A Russian tanker has muscled its way through hundreds of miles of Bering Sea ice several feet thick to deliver fuel to Nome. Now comes the tricky part: Getting more than a million gallons of diesel and gasoline to shore through a mile-long hose without a spill.
The problem is that Nome's harbor is iced-in, preventing the 370-foot tanker from getting to the city dock. It will have to moor offshore to transfer the 1.3 million gallons across the ice and to fuel headers at the dock.
"I think all of the precautions have been addressed," Nome Harbormaster Joy Baker said Friday. "I think everything that should be done has been done."
For days, operations officials have looked at how best to lay the segmented fuel hose across the shore ice for the transfer. They were waiting for daylight Friday to get a better look at any changes overnight. The idea is to get the tanker in as close as possible to reduce the chance of a spill.
There has been lots 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.
A Coast Guard icebreaker escorted the tanker through the Bering Sea pack ice, the two vessels at times barely crawling along as officials looked for new techniques to get the tanker free of shifting ice.
Late Thursday, the Coast Guard Cutter Healy and the Renda stopped six miles offshore to wait for daylight and figure out how to get the tanker within about a mile of the harbor so its hose will reach the dock.
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."
The state is requiring that the fuel transfer be done only in daylight hours. Nome's northern latitude leaves it mostly hidden from the sun this time of year, meaning sunrise doesn't come until 11:39 a.m. local time (3:39 p.m. EST), and there will be just 5 hours and 4 minutes of sunlight Friday.
If successful, the transfer would mark the first time fuel has been delivered by sea to a Western Alaska community in winter.
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.
Michels said the weather has been extremely cold this winter. The temperature in Nome dipped to 34 degrees below zero Friday, breaking a record set for that day in 1973.
In temperatures like this, the fuel really gets gobbled up fast, she said.
Coast Guard webcam: http://bit.ly/wEsemi