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Russian ship to pump fuel to ice-bound Alaska port
by Staff Writers
Nome, Alaska (AFP) Jan 13, 2012

Residents of the remote Alaskan port of Nome on Sunday awaited the transfer of much-needed fuel from a Russian ship that battled through some 300 miles (480 kilometers) of Arctic ice to get here.

Helped by a US Coast Guard icebreaker, the Russian tanker Renda docked at Nome on Saturday.

It will remain there until 1.3 million gallons of fuel are delivered to the town of some 3,500 people, which did not get its usual pre-winter oil delivery due to a storm in the fall.

It is the first time such a fuel delivery has been attempted through some 300 miles of ice in the depths of winter, and wind and currents made progress through the ice difficult.

"Our goal is that nobody gets hurt, no product gets spilled, we have no accidents -- it's not over until the Renda is out of the ice and headed back to Russia," Coast Guard Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo said.

"We have a long way to go, keeping an eye on safety and bringing our mission to a conclusion."

A special waiver had to be granted to allow the Renda to head to the rescue, as normally only US-owned and operated vessels are allowed to make such deliveries, under a 1920 US law.

Petty Officer Sara Francis, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard, has said the fuel transfer was scheduled to begin on Monday after the ice around the Russian tanker had solidified again, making it possible to approach it.

Once hoses are connected, the fuel transfer operation is expected to take some 45 hours, pumping continuously day and night until the fuel is all delivered, officials say.

A path has been cleared through the snow on a beach with a good view of the harbor for townspeople to watch the action, but red-tipped stakes have been placed in the ice to mark off an out-of-bounds area where the hoses will run.

Even once it has started transferring the fuel, it is difficult to predict exactly how long the operation will take, since the extreme temperatures could interfere with how fast the fuel can be pumped.

Jason Evans, chairman of Sitnasuak Native Corp., the company which contracted the Renda to make the delivery, explained that the price of flying in the fuel would have been too high.

"The company could not simply add the cost of flights to the current price per gallon -- around $5.50 -- as we have a competitor in town," Evans said.

"To fly it in, it would take four flights a day to manage current use levels."

The bone-chilling weather is harsh even by Alaska's standards: officials said temperatures had been down to minus 50 degrees on the two vessels.

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