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Workers pump fuel into ice-bound Alaska port to ease shortage

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Workers pumped emergency fuel supplies into the ice-bound Alaskan port of Nome on Tuesday to ease an energy shortage after a Russian tanker braved ice-choked seas and cut through red tape to deliver the cargo, a Coast Guard official said.

The Russian tanker Renda was dispatched to Nome with a Coast Guard icebreaker escort after the town's last scheduled barge delivery of fuel was cancelled in the fall when one of the worst storms in decades swept the northwest coastal town.

The fuel delivery is the first ever made by marine vessel to northwestern Alaska in winter, when the ocean and rivers in the region are choked with ice, Coast Guard officials said.

Emergency deliveries by air, an expensive undertaking, would have been needed if the Renda had failed to get to Nome, a town with a population of about 3,600 residents over 500 miles northwest of Anchorage.

The Renda arrived off the coast of Nome on Friday, but officials said at the time they wanted to position the ship and make all necessary arrangements to ensure a safe delivery of fuel without any spills.

Workers on the tanker and on shore began transferring the fuel late on Monday. By Tuesday morning, about 365,000 gallons of the 1.3 million gallon fuel cargo had been delivered to storage tanks on shore through hoses laid over half a mile of ice, Coast Guard spokesman Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow said.

The transfer process was expected to take two to three days.

"We want to make sure this transfer is done correctly," Wadlow told Reuters by phone from Nome.

COORDINATION REQUIRED

The fuel distributor, a subsidiary of the Nome-based Sitnasuak Native Corp., arranged for the Russian tanker to deliver the fuel.

The Renda's voyage required coordination by a variety of agencies, chiefly the Coast Guard, which sent its only functioning Arctic-class icebreaker to escort the Russian ship. The Renda got an exemption last month from U.S. maritime law for the journey.

The icebreaking cutter, the Healy, and the Renda had crunched through hundreds of miles of sea ice before reaching the waters off Nome. The Renda is capable of breaking through ice, but the Healy is a more powerful cutter, the Coast Guard said.

It was unclear when the Renda and the Seattle-based Healy would be able to return to their home ports, Wadlow said.

"That's still a bit up in the air," he said.

To escort the Renda, the Healy extended its normal tour of duty by about a month. The Coast Guard cutter had been sailing south from the Arctic, where it spent much of the year assisting in research projects, when it received the call in December to help with the fuel delivery.

For the Coast Guard, Wadlow said, the mission has helped expand understanding of sea ice and the Healy's capabilities.

"It's been a great learning opportunity," he said. "We've made the contacts so that if something should happen in the future, we know to we need to call."

The Nome mission demonstrates the need for the Coast Guard to acquire new polar-class icebreakers, Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell said over the weekend.

"We have more than half the nation's coastline, and we want a Coast Guard which has all weather, all-hazards capability," Treadwell told a Sunday news conference in Nome.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Cynthia Johnston)

(Corrects to clarify the Healy is only functioning Arctic-class icebreaker)

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