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Russian tanker approved to transport fuel shipment to Nome

Jill Burke
Photo by Catherine Lepine

As an ice-class tanker makes its way from Vladivostok in Russian Far East to Alaska's Aleutian Islands on a unique rescue mission, it sailed past an obstacle on Friday that could have brought the adventure to a halt.

An Alaska Native corporation hired the specialized Russian vessel -- capable of sailing through ice-choked waters -- to move 400,000 gallons of gasoline to Nome after the previous shipper couldn't make the trip because of a bad storm and thickening sea ice conditions. The town of a few thousand people, located just south of the Arctic Circle in Northwest Alaska, depends on the fuel shipment to make it through the long winter. It is also carrying 1 million gallons of home heating fuel, a load it picked up in South Korea before making the ocean crossing to Alaska.

But as the Russian tanker, called the Renda, came to Nome's rescue, it ran into regulatory trouble. Under the federal Jones Act, before a foreign-flagged vessel is allowed to transport cargo from one U.S. port to another, it first needs clearance from Homeland Security.

On Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano gave the Renda the all clear, issuing a waiver.

“This is great news for Nome residents who either faced a long, cold winter or soaring energy costs,” U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said in a statement. “A lot of work remains to get this shipment delivered to Nome, but I appreciate the cooperation of all involved to get this far."

Begich's office pushed for the tanker to get the clearance.

Jones Act waivers are "very rare," according to Mark Smith, president and chief executive of Vitus Marine, the company that hired the Renda on behalf of Sitnasuak Native Corporation to conduct the challenging fuel delivery through the ice-laden Bering Sea. He said this particular waiver was granted only because so many people wanted it to happen. Had it been a request solely from Vitus Marine, he's not convinced it would have happened.

Begich said it took the cooperation of Sitnasuak, members of Congress, Nome's mayor, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, Maritime administration and U.S. shippers -- all of whom agreed the waiver was necessary -- to pull it off.

The Renda is said to be in the vicinity of Attu Island and expected to reach Dutch Harbor on Tuesday. From there, a U.S. Coast Guard ice breaker will lead the tanker to Nome, cutting through hundreds of miles of sea ice that traditionally during this time of year brings marine transport to a standstill in Alaska's arctic waters.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.