WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) today confronted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell over her rejection of a lifesaving road for the Alaska community of King Cove. Murkowski called on the secretary to reopen the record of decision and reconsider the Christmas-time rejection of the project.
“I need you to carry the message to this administration that this road is nonnegotiable; that the health and safety of the people of King Cove is nonnegotiable. And that I will do everything, everything within my power to make sure that the needs of these people are taken care of and put first,” Murkowski told Jewell.
- HD video of Sen. Murkowski’s full opening statement is available here.
Murkowski, speaking at Wednesday’s Senate Appropriations Interior Subcommittee hearing on the Interior Department’s budget proposal, blasted Jewell for failing to offer a single viable alternative to the road solution in Interior’s budget proposal – nearly four months after Jewell specifically promised to find another option.
“The passage of time has not lessened my passion to see justice for the people of King Cove. I am unwilling to simply ‘get over it.’ I am also unwilling to allow your department to do nothing to help the Alaskans it has promised to assist, who at this point have only been further imperiled,” Murkowski said. “If you are not going to reverse the decision you announced on Dec. 23, then the least you could do is to re-open the record of decision in order to reconsider the issue.”
Secretary Jewell made a number of inaccurate claims in her testimony, including suggesting that the U.S. Coast Guard could establish a permanent duty station in Cold Bay. Murkowski, who recently spoke to Coast Guard leaders in Alaska, said the Coast Guard would require an additional 20 full-time employees and two helicopters at a cost of $26 million each to set up a new station – an idea that Coast Guard officials said was outside the scope of its mission and beyond its budget, Murkowski said.
“Every Coast Guard flight risks the lives of at least four Guardsmen and women, not to mention the patient,” Murkowski said. “There is a safe and easy way to help our fellow citizens. And the only thing standing in the way is our own federal government’s decision to place a higher value on birds than it does on the health and safety of my state’s citizens. This is absolutely wrong.”
Murkowski told Jewell that the search for alternatives is “one that has been reviewed for decades now.”
“We are at a point where you have such unanimity in the community about a road because other solutions have been tried and failed, or analyzed and determined too costly or not feasible,” Murkowski said. “I appreciate you are new to the issue of King Cove. But to them, this has been almost a lifetime of struggling.”
The residents of King Cove have been fighting for decades for a road that would provide safe access to an all-weather airport, the second-longest runway in the state. It’s not hard to understand why – 19 people have died, either in plane crashes or because they couldn’t get to timely medical treatment. And there have been seven medevacs of King Cove residents since Jewell rejected the road right before Christmas.
In a community with no hospital or doctor, King Cove residents must fly more than 600 miles to Anchorage for most medical procedures, including for serious trauma and childbirth.
Unfortunately, when the federal government created the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge 54 years ago, it cut off the traditional land route between the Aleut community of King Cove and the old World War II outpost of Cold Bay. The people of King Cove were never consulted.
The King Cove airstrip is closed due to bad weather more than 100 days a year. And nearly 40 percent of the flights at King Cove are interrupted by wind and turbulence, fog, rain or snow squalls. The Cold Bay airport, on the other hand, is closed due to weather just nine to 10 days a year, according to the Cold Bay Flight Service Station.
Without land access, the only alternative to evacuate a patient during bad weather is to call the U.S. Coast Guard to send a rescue helicopter from Kodiak at a cost to taxpayers of as much as $210,000 a trip. The Coast Guard has been called in five times so far this year alone.
The people of King Cove are asking for 11 miles of road – a gravel, one-lane, 13-feet-wide road – through an area that the Aleut stewarded for thousands of years before the federal government came along. And they are willing to pay dearly for it. King Cove and the state of Alaska have agreed to give the refuge more than 56,000 acres of prized wildlife habitat, including areas with high oil and natural gas potential, in exchange for a 206-acre road corridor.
In 2009, Congress approved legislation authorizing the land exchange and road proposal. The legislation was signed into law, but it required the approval of Interior Secretary Jewell.
Additional information on King Cove, including a letter from Peter Pan Seafoods stating that the company has no commercial interest in the road, is available on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee website.