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Russian Tanker Within 100 Miles of Nome

A tanker carrying desperately-needed fuel is closing in on Nome, Alaska, a city of 3,600 residents, more than half of whom are Alaska Natives.
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A tanker carrying desperately-needed fuel is closing in on Nome, Alaska, a city of 3,600 residents, more than half of whom are Alaska Natives.

Nome finds itself strapped for gas and heating oil because a tanker that was supposed to deliver a shipment in the fall was blocked from doing so due to severe storms. This time around, failure is not an option. According to an Associated Press report, a barge delivery of fuel would not be possible until the spring. If the tanker manages the delivery, it would mark the first time petroleum products had been delivered to a western Alaska community in winter, the AP said.

The fuel is being carried by the Russian tanker Renda, which is following a path cut for it through ice by the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. Progress is slow and often halted by the behavior of "dynamic" ice that shifts due to pressure. As explained in the AP report, "The ice tends to close in, cutting off the path between the two ships. When that happens, the icebreaker doubles back and makes a relief cut to take pressure off the tanker and open a pathway."

This unprecedented and suspenseful solution to Nome's predicament didn't come about easily. A December 30 story in the Alaska Dispatch describes how the Sitnasuak Native Corporation had to cooperate with the Department of Homeland Security to set it up, and that the maneuvering also involved members of Congress, Nome's mayor, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, Maritime administration and U.S. shippers. Under the federal Jones Act, a foreign-flagged vessel must receive clearance from the Department of Homeland Security before it can transport cargo from one U.S. port to another. On Friday, December 30, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano approved the rare Jones Act waiver.

The Renda is carrying a million gallons of home heating fuel from South Korea and 300,000 gallons of gasoline that it picked up in Dutch Harbor after crossing the Bering Sea from Vladivostok. While hopes are high that the delivery will occur, perhaps as soon as Thursday, a New York Times article tells a tale of underlying frustration that will likely bubble up once the immediate drama has finished. The Times reporter spoke with a local hockey player whose opinion may be common among Nome residents: “People need to get fired over this. ... The litigation of whose fault it is will probably go on forever.”

Alaska is having a particularly harsh winter, with storms battering the entire state; in the Southcentral region, towns like Valdez and Cordova in the Southcentral have been blanketed by snow. See our earlier story: "Under 18 Feet of Snow, Cordova, Alaska Calls on National Guard (Videos)".