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Fuel starts flowing from Russian tanker to Nome

Jill Burke
Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission

UPDATED 5:05 p.m. Jan. 16: Workers have started flowing fuel from a Russian tanker vessel to the town of Nome, signalling the beginning of the end of what has been an unusual mission in Western Alaska.

Hoses running from the Russian tanker Rende to the shores of Nome started pumping fuel just as the sun was setting at 4:52 p.m.

At the beginning of the fueling operation, workers will be staged at every connector along the line to ensure there are no problems. Later, a two-man relay team will walk the line every 30 minutes until the transfer is complete.  The fuel transfer will take an estimated 36 to 48 hours.

Original story: Two hoses are stretched 700 yards from ship to shore in Nome, Alaska, waiting to pump about 1.4 million gallons of eagerly-awaited fuel to the remote city on the state's western coast. By 2:30 p.m. Monday, the operation was in its final stages of preparation. 

Pressurized air tests were being conducted on the lines, looking for possible leaks. If everything checks out, fuel aboard the Russian-flagged, Arctic-class tanker Renda could begin flowing into Nome before nightfall.

"Two parallel hoses are stretched out over 700 yards each, from the ship to the marine header, where the hose is hooked up to the pipeline that runs directly to the customers' tanks," said Stacey Smith, a project manager with Vitus Marine, the company that commissioned the Renda to transport the load to Nome.

The unusual delivery is a first. Never before has a winter-time bulk fuel order been delivered via ship in Western Alaska. Seasonal ice traditionally chokes off marine shipping during the state's coldest, darkest months. The Renda had help -- a personal escort from an ice-breaking U.S. Coast Guard cutter.

A private fuel supplier in Nome, Sitnasuak Native Corp., arranged for the delivery on behalf of its subsidiary, Bonanza Fuel, when a previously expected shipment never showed up, turned back by a massive November storm.

"We are very hopeful that it will be before dark tonight," Smith said, referring to the time fuel starts moving through the hoses.

If the fuel transfer hasn't begun by nightfall, it must wait until Tuesday. That's because the special permit for the one-time delivery requires that the initial connections and pumping begin during the day. Once it starts, pumping can take place around the clock. 

Two employees of Bonanza Fuel will have an only-in-Alaska job during the transfer -- walking the entire length of the hoses every 30 minutes in alternating shifts to watch for leaks. 

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com