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Russian icebreaking tanker set to deliver fuel to Alaska town

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A Russian tanker with icebreaking capability will make an emergency fuel delivery to Nome, Alaska, after a massive winter storm turned back a barge carrying the city's last regularly scheduled fuel delivery.

The Sitnasuak Native Corporation said it had signed a contract to have a vessel owned by the Russian company RIMSCO deliver 1.5 million gallons of fuel to Nome by year's end.

The operation, if successful, will allow Nome residents to avoid a serious fuel shortage later this winter resulting from the missed barge delivery, said Jason Evans, Sitnasuak's chairman.

Nome, a city of about 3,600, lacks outside road access and depends on ships and aircraft for supplies. Fuel prices are already high -- averaging about $5.40 for a gallon of gasoline -- but a shortage later in the winter could have added several dollars to that per-gallon price.

Sitnasuak, which owns one of two local Nome fuel distribution companies, had missed the year's final scheduled barge delivery of fuel.

A barge carrying 1.6 million gallons of gasoline, diesel fuel and heating fuel failed to reach the port of Nome because of bad weather and sea-ice chunks blown into the harbor by hurricane-force winds in a storm last month that was considered the strongest in western Alaska since 1974.

With the barge delivery canceled, Sitnasuak had been considering flying in fuel later in the year, an expensive option. Delivery by the Russian vessel is more expensive than the traditional barging method, but is substantially less than flying in fuel, Evans said.

Sitnasuak said its contract is with Vitus Marine LLC, an Alaska shipper that came up with the idea of using a RIMSCO ice-breaking fuel vessel, Evans said.

"We were reaching out to everyone and anyone that had any sort of possible scenario to get fuel to Nome," Evans said.

If successful, it will be the first marine delivery of petroleum products to western Alaska conducted in winter, Sitnasuak said.

The RIMSCO ship, called the Renda, will carry fuel from Inchon, South Korea, to Nome, Evans said. It is expected to take 20 to 25 days for the ship to make the journey from the port at Vladivostok to Inchon and then on to Nome, Evans said.

The U.S. Coast Guard has pledged to help the Renda make the voyage and will use the icebreaking cutter Healy to help clear a path for the tanker if necessary, Evans said.

The fact that a Russian ship will be delivering Korean fuel to oil-rich Alaska "does have some irony to it, Evans said. "But certainly we live in a global economy nowadays."

Sitnasuak is owned by 2,400 Inupiat Eskimos who live in Nome or have family ties to the area.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)

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