WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today condemned the Department of the Interior for ignoring the safety of the residents of King Cove in opposing emergency road access through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula.
Public Law 111-11, sponsored by Murkowski, orders a land exchange and construction of a road to allow the residents of King Cove access to the all-weather airport in Cold Bay for emergency evacuation purposes.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday issued a final environmental impact statement opposing the land exchange and emergency road. As required by law, Secretary Salazar still must make a public interest determination on the transfer and the road.
“This decision is unacceptable and reflects a wanton disregard for the lives of the Aleut people who have called the Aleutians home for thousands of years. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a matter of life and death to the people of King Cove,” Murkowski said. “Too many people have died already for there to be any legitimate excuse for further delay.”
The land exchange, which was approved by Congress in the 2009 Izembek National Wildlife Refuge Land Exchange Act, would increase the size of the Izembek and Alaska Peninsula Wildlife Refuges by more than 56,000 acres in exchange for 206 acres of federally-owned land for the construction a single-land, gravel road to connect King Cove and Cold Bay. Use of the road would be restricted to emergencies only by law.
“When you consider the number of life-threatening accidents that have occurred due to the challenges of flying into King Cove during foul weather, I believe there is no greater good than providing safe road access to the all-weather airport at nearby Cold Bay,” Murkowski said.
A dozen deaths have been attributed to the lack of road over the past 30 years. The worst accident occurred in 1981 when a plane crashed during an attempted medical evacuation, killing all four people onboard.
“It’s not surprising that people have lost faith in their government when irresponsible decisions like this are handed down from Washington,” Murkowski said. “If the environmental review process doesn’t allow for valuing the health and safety of a community then it is irrevocably broken.
“So far Secretary Salazar has refused to meet with the people of King Cove. It is imperative that he meet face to face with the people whose lives he is putting at risk before making a final decision,” Murkowski said. “This fight is not over.”
The law requires the Interior Secretary to determine whether the road is in the public interest – a decision that is by law separate and distinct from the environmental impact statement. The Interior Secretary is not bound by the finding of the environmental impact statement, especially where the health and safety of a community is concerned.
“The residents of King Cove, who have lived in the region for hundreds of years – long before the federal government decided to create a refuge and take their land away –
Deserve to be treated with as much respect as the birds the Secretary wants to protect,” Murkowski said.