Images: Ships off coast of Nome
Charly Hengen  /  U.S. Coast Guard via AP
The Coast Guard cutter Healy guides the Russian tanker Renda closer to the fuel transfer mooring point in Nome, Alaska, on Saturday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/15/2012 11:34:31 AM ET 2012-01-15T16:34:31

A Russian tanker with a cargo of much-needed fuel for Nome was moored less than a half mile from the Alaska town's iced-in harbor Sunday morning, holding for disturbed ice to refreeze before crews can finish work to deliver the fuel, the Coast Guard said.

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Teams on the ground were preparing to deploy two small drones to survey the ice before laying down a fuel hose from the tanker to the shore.

"Today's unmanned flight operations will involve imaging the work to lay the hose and provide an aerial perspective the the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the industry team to support their spill response planning/preparations," Greg Walker, who runs the drone program at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, told msnbc.com Sunday morning.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which cleared a path through hundreds of miles of Bering Sea ice for the tanker, was nearby.

"We were able to successfully navigate that last bit of ice," Coast Guard spokesman Kip Wadlow said. "We were able to get it pretty much right on the money, in the position that the industry representatives wanted to start the fuel transfer process."

Coast Guard webcam: http://bit.ly/wEsemi

The crew of the 370-foot tanker Renda was working to ensure the safe transfer of the 1.3-million gallons of fuel through a segmented hose that will be laid on top of the ice to the harbor, located about 2,100 feet from the ship, Wadlow said in a telephone interview from Nome Saturday night.

Image: Ships near harbor entrance
Greg Walker  /  University of Alaska, Fairbanks
The U.S. Coast Guard Healy and the Russian-flagged tanker Renda near the entrance to the harbor in Nome, Alaska, on Saturday.

Wadlow said he doesn't know how long it will be before fuel flows as crews must wait 12 hours, or until about 5 a.m. (6 a.m. PST) Sunday, to ensure that the disturbed ice has refrozen.

At that point, crews must build some sort of road or pathway over the ice for the hose to rest on. Then the hose's segments will have to be bolted together and inspected before the fuel can begin to flow.

Story: Tricky fuel transfer awaits tanker nearing Nome

There has been a lot of anxious waiting since the ship left Russia in mid-December. It picked up diesel fuel in South Korea before traveling to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where it took on unleaded gasoline. Late Thursday, the vessels stopped offshore and began planning the transfer.

A fall storm prevented Nome from getting a fuel delivery by barge in November. Without the tanker delivery, supplies of diesel fuel, gasoline and home heating fuel Nome are expected to run out in March and April, well before a barge delivery again in late May or June.

Earlier Saturday, Sitnasuak Native Corp. board chairman Jason Evans provided details of the transfer process.

Once the hose is laid down, he said personnel will walk its entire length every 30 minutes to check it for leaks. Each segment of hose will have its own spill containment area, and extra absorbent boom will be on hand in case of a spill.

Story: Ultra-harsh winter prompts critical fuel shortages in Alaska

Evans said he hopes the crew will begin unloading Sunday.

The state is requiring that the fuel transfer be initiated only in daylight hours, but it can continue in darkness, Betty Schorr, industry preparedness program manager for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, has said. Nome has just five hours of daylight this time of year.

The transfer could be finished within 36 hours if everything goes smoothly, but it could take as long as five days, Schorr said.

"It's kind of like a football game, we're on the five yard line and we just want to work into the goal line," said Evans, whose hometown is Nome.

Evans, however, cautioned that delivering the fuel is only half the mission.

"The ships need to transition back through 300 miles of ice," he said. "I say we're not done until the ships are safely back at their home ports (in Seattle and Russia)."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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