Foreign tanker OK to deliver gas to iced-in city

ANCHORAGE — A Russian tanker’s mission to deliver petroleum products to an iced-in Alaska city cleared a large hurdle when a waiver was granted allowing the loading of hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline at a port in the Aleutian Islands.

The 370-foot tanker is due to arrive in the fishing port of Dutch Harbor at 6 p.m. today, the Coast Guard said Sunday.

The waiver of the federal Jones Act granted Friday was crucial to the tanker completing its mission of delivering petroleum products to Nome, a city of about 3,500 residents on Alaska’s western coastline. A huge storm this fall delayed delivery by barge and by the time the weather had improved Nome was iced-in.

There are a variety of petroleum products on hand in Nome but it doesn’t have enough gasoline and diesel fuel to last until spring.

The Renda left Russia in mid-December and headed to South Korea where it picked up more than 1 million gallons of diesel fuel. The plan was to have the tanker pick up 400,000 gallons of gasoline in Japan but officials with fuel supplier Vitus Marine LLC were told the tanker was too small to be docked. Another plan was put in place to have the fuel loaded from another ship but a storm prevented that from happening.

The decision was made to have the tanker pick up fuel in Dutch Harbor and then go to Nome. However, that plan needed a Jones Act waiver. The act is designed to protect the domestic shipping industry. It says that no merchandise shall be transported between points in the U.S. in a foreign-owned vessel.

Vitus Marine CEO Mark Smith said last week that the tanker was making good progress, more than 250 miles a day. The Coast Guard said Sunday there were no reported problems.

Smith said the tanker is no stranger to missions in U.S. waters and has been called on numerous times.

However, the tanker will need help getting through 300 miles of sea ice around Nome, even though the Ice Class Russian tanker often takes on solo missions in ice-clogged Russian waters. It also at times is aided by ice breakers.

Before the fuel delivery by-sea plane, Sitnasuak Native Corp. had considered flying fuel to Nome. But, corporation officials said that would have been very costly, perhaps increasing a gallon of gasoline to $9.

The corporation, which is responsible for delivering the fuel to its wholly-owned subsidiary Bonanza Fuel in Nome, has said delivering the fuel by tanker will be somewhat more costly than by barge but much less expensive than air deliveries.

If all goes as planned, the Renda is expected to arrive in Nome by the second week in January. But the Coast Guard said the delivery date depends on the condition of the ice, whether it is slushy and easy to get through or hardened ice several feet thick. The Coast Guard’s only functioning ice breaker is on hand to help.

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