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Icebreaker sought to refuel isolated Nome, Alaska

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A Coast Guard icebreaker cruising off the coast of Alaska after a research season in the Arctic Ocean should be diverted to clear a path to Nome so fuel can be delivered to that isolated northern city, the state's two U.S. senators said on Thursday.

The city, hammered by a hurricane-like storm earlier this month, missed this year's last scheduled barge delivery of gasoline, diesel and heating fuel. Residents are worried about the prospect of paying $9 a gallon for gas.

Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich sent letters to Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp on Thursday asking that icebreaker Healy, which on Thursday was in the Bering Strait region near Nome, delay its return to its home port in Seattle to assist the city of 3,600 residents.

The last barge to attempt to reach Nome was carrying 1.6 million gallons of fuel. It was unable to dock in the city in November because of bad weather, as winds from the storm pushed large chunks of ice into Nome's port and effectively closed it to marine traffic, Murkowski said in her letter to Papp.

If the icebreaker clears a path, a barge would be able to make a delivery, she said.

"While I am sure the officers and crew of the CGC Healy are anxious to return home to Seattle, I ask that you use the CGC Healy and other assets available to assist the people of western Alaska with any fuel or supply shortages they face, if possible," Murkowski said in her letter to Papp.

Without another barge delivery of fuel, residents of Nome could see gasoline prices rise by about $4 a gallon later this winter, Begich said in his letter to Papp.

Residents are already paying about $5.40 per gallon, according to the city's mayor.

Begich wrote that in January the Coast Guard used its "icebreaking capability" in Chesapeake Bay to "keep fuel deliveries moving in Maryland."

"If the Coast Guard delivers this service in the Lower 48 (states), why can't it do so in our northern-most state?" the senator said in his letter.

In a statement, the Coast Guard's Alaska commander said on Thursday the agency is seeking to address Nome's situation.

"We are going to work closely with the city, state and our industry partners to explore all options to help the people of Nome," said Rear Admiral Thomas P. Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard's Alaska district. "We understand how critical the fuel is to ensuring they can sustain their way of life through the winter."

If additional fuel cannot be barged to Nome, distributors are considering flying it in, which would be a costly option.

Weather experts said the early November storm was the worst to hit northwestern Alaska since 1974.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Peter Bohan)

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