WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) today once again called on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to address the life-threatening situation in King Cove, Alaska created by Jewell’s refusal to allow a few miles of road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to link the isolated community with the state’s second-longest runway.
“The Interior Secretary rejected the road proposal two days before Christmas Eve, and since then I have been told to get over it and move on. But I am not going to get over it nor move on. The ability of the people of King Cove to cross the refuge to reach emergency medical treatment is an issue of environmental and social justice,” Murkowski said. “When Secretary Jewell rejected the road, she promised to find a viable alternative – so far she’s done nothing. Meanwhile the people of King Cove live in fear that they will be trapped by the weather during a medical emergency. I will not sit idly by while the lives of Alaskans are unnecessarily put at risk.”
Murkowski today sent Secretary Jewell a letter after a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter had to be called on Friday to get a 63-year-old woman suffering from heart failure to a hospital. Weather conditions in King Cove at the time were such – 70-mile-an-hour wind gusts and near zero visibility – that commercial planes couldn’t fly. The patient remains in critical condition in an Anchorage hospital.
In the letter, Murkowski said the incident underscores questions of why Secretary Jewell is willing to place a higher priority on preventing even a marginal intrusion on the peace and comfort of birds above the safety and well-being of not only the residents of King Cove, but also the members of the Coast Guard who must risk their lives to save them.
“Friday was just the latest example of the unnecessary risk the Interior Department is willing to submit Alaskans to in the name of protecting bird habitat,” Murkowski said. “The stress felt by the residents of King Cove, for the safety of their families, is unforgiveable. While plenty of our smallest communities face transportation challenges, none are as close to an all-weather runway and safe access to hospital care as King Cove. To be left in harms way, not because of geography, but because of the callous decisions of Washington bureaucrats is unacceptable.”
Murkowski commended the bravery and selfless dedication of the Coast Guard officers, who put their own lives in danger to protect Alaskans every day, but she is angered that they are also asked to face unnecessary risk because of Interior’s rejection of the road.
“It was lucky that the Coast Guard were nearby and able to help. If they had been in Kodiak, the outcome may have been far worse,” Murkowski said. “We should not be forced to rely on the Coast Guard, brave though they are, to risk flying in conditions when no one else can. They would not have to do so if there was a road.”
The residents of King Cove have been fighting for decades for road access to neighboring Cold Bay, where flights to life-saving medical care aren’t stopped by the region’s notorious weather.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, sex, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
“Anyway you define it, the people of King Cove, most of whom are Alaska Natives, are not being treated fairly by their government,” Murkowski said. “It’s ridiculous that Secretary Jewell and her Interior Department continue to believe that their fellow Americans do not deserve the same access to emergency medical care that they take for granted for their own families in the Lower 48.”
Tuesday’s letter is the third time Murkowski has written to Jewell in the past four weeks regarding King Cove. Both Murkowski’s Jan. 17 letter and Feb. 11 letter are available on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee website.
- King Cove’s runway was built in 1970 on the only suitable piece of land but its geographical position in a narrow valley between volcanic mountains challenges pilots with both rugged topography and the perfect funnel for the region’s fierce winds.
- Within 11 years of the runway being built, King Cove suffered three fatal plane crashes, killing 10 people and prompting the community to seek road access to Cold Bay. Over the past 30 years, 18 deaths have been attributed to the lack of a road, either because of plane crashes or the inability to reach adequate medical treatment in time. With only a small clinic and no full-time physician, residents of King Cove must travel 600 miles to Anchorage for most medical procedures, including childbirth.
- The King Cove airstrip is closed due to bad weather more than 100 days a year on average, according to Cold Bay Flight Service Station. 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 is closed due to weather just 10 days a year on average, 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 as far away as Kodiak at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of as much as $210,000 a trip. The Coast Guard was called in five times in 2012 alone.
- The Izembek refuge – including federally designated wilderness areas – already contains nearly 70 miles of road built by the U.S. Military during World War II, more than 50 miles of which continue to be used today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the duck hunters who visit the seven privately owned hunting lodges in Cold Bay.
- King Cove and the state of Alaska have offered 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 through a small sliver of the refuge.
- The refuge actively promotes the area’s world-class waterfowl hunting opportunities and has some of the highest daily sport hunting bag limits anywhere – six Canada geese, two black brant, eight puddle ducks, and 15 sea ducks. That's 31 birds per day, per hunter. The ptarmigan limit is another 20 birds per day.
- The King Cove road would not be a new precedent: there are 4,900 miles of roads in the National Wildlife Refuge System nationally.
Additional information on King Cove is available on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s website.