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Ice has Nome on edge for fuel

If supply flown in, $9 pump price seen

Lots of Americans are worried about gas prices this holiday season, but the town of Nome, Alaska, is facing a unique problem: With the community’s small port locked in ice, the barge hauling the big winter-fuel delivery can’t make it into town.

City officials were still scrambling, working with the U.S. Coast Guard on Friday to figure out a work-around. Unless an icebreaker can be deployed to chop through the foot-thick ice, Nome’s 3,600 residents might have to fly in fuel – and pay up to $9 a gallon at the pump for the privilege.

“Right now we’re working with the Coast Guard and the local fuel vendor here to look at our options with the ice coverage and thickness, and seeing about the Coast Guard kind of creating a path for a fuel barge to make it to Nome in the next few weeks,” City Manager Josie Bahnke said.

Alaska’s remote bush communities typically haul in fuel for gasoline and home heating furnaces by barge, because few towns are connected to roads. But the onset of winter sea ice makes barge deliveries all but impossible.

Nome’s shipment was headed for port in early November ahead of the deep freeze but got waylaid by the powerful autumn storm that swept in from the Bering Sea, bringing high seas and hurricane-force winds.

Now, the barge loaded with 1.6 million gallons of fuel is anchored at Kachemak Bay, about a two weeks’ sail from Nome. And the Coast Guard’s only functioning icebreaker, the Healy, is deployed (near Nome, as a matter of fact) on a scientific mission.

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, has not had funds to deploy new icebreakers. Two of the Coast Guard’s three aging icebreakers are undergoing repairs in Seattle.

Bahnke said the town is not facing a life-threatening emergency. The city still has fuel for the moment, and even if the winter supplies can’t be delivered by sea, the city could fly them in, albeit at such an expense that gasoline prices would likely soar from their current $5.40 a gallon to perhaps $9.

The city is seeking reassurances that the state – as it has in many past winter fuel emergencies, which aren’t all that rare in Alaska – would step in, in that case, with financial help.