U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today expressed shock and disbelief at Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s continued failure to protect the health and safety of the people of King Cove, Alaska. Jewell blocked a land exchange in 2013 that would have provided community residents with reliable access to medical care in emergency situations, and has done nothing since to find an alternative.
Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, started her first round of questions at a hearing on the Interior Department’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2016 by asking Jewell if she knew when the last emergency medevac occurred in King Cove.
Jewell did not know – even though the medevac occurred this past Sunday night, when a female resident in her 80s was diagnosed with a serious infection that required transport to Anchorage. Jewell was also unaware of how many medevacs have occurred so far in 2015 (a total of five, including one by the U.S. Coast Guard), how many occurred in 2014 (a total of 16, including six by the Coast Guard), or even the total number of medevacs that have occurred since her rejection of the road in December 2013 (a total of 21, based on the numbers above).
Murkowski condemned Jewell’s continued inaction after the hearing, noting, “How she came to an oversight hearing on her department without any knowledge of the situation in King Cove or even the faint tracings of a real plan to remedy it is simply unacceptable. She took away this life-saving road – and she has consigned the people of King Cove to suffer pain, injury, and illness until a medevac can arrive.”
Murkowski next asked Jewell what she has been done in the past 14 months to find superior alternatives to a roughly 11-mile, gravel, non-commercial, life-saving connector road between the isolated community of King Cove and an all-weather airport in neighboring Cold Bay.
The short answer – nothing.
“King Cove is still totally unresolved,” Murkowski said. “Yesterday marked 14 months since this road was rejected – yet, again, we see nothing in your budget request to help those whose lives are in needless danger.”
When Jewell rejected the life-saving road on Dec. 23, 2013, she said she understood the “need for reliable methods of medical transport from King Cove, but have concluded that other methods of transport remain that could be improved to meet community needs.”
Yet, 14 months later, Jewell has failed to keep her promise to help develop any alternatives. Interior’s budget request includes nothing for King Cove, funded or otherwise, further indicating the secretary intends to provide no help to the isolated community.
Jewell told Murkowski that she’s talking to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on alternative transportation options, including the possibility of establishing helicopter service – despite the fact that the region’s frequently severe weather makes landing even a fixed-wing airplane at King Cove often impossible.
The residents of King Cove have argued for a way to safely access Cold Bay, which has the second-longest runway in the state, almost from the creation of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which cut off the Aleut community’s traditional land route to the all-weather airport in Cold Bay.
“I know we have lots of isolated communities across the state with transportation challenges,” Murkowski said. “The difference in this case is that King Cove is just a few miles from our state’s second-longest runway, where flights can land and take off in all kinds of weather. I can’t accept doing nothing when the solution is as easy as building a few miles of road.”
Over the past 30 years, 19 deaths have been attributed to the lack of a road, either because of plane crashes or residents’ inability to reach medical treatment in time. King Cove’s airstrip is closed by bad weather more than 100 days a year on average. Nearly 40 percent of the flights not canceled are interrupted by wind and turbulence, fog, rain, or snow squalls. By comparison, the Cold Bay airport is closed an average of 10 days a year.
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. When the weather takes a turn for the worse – which it often does on the Alaska Peninsula – the only option is a risky voyage across the rough waters of Cold Bay by fishing boat or a Coast Guard helicopter out of Kodiak Island, several hundred miles away.
In 2009, Congress approved legislation authorizing a land exchange that would have resulted in 56,000 acres of state and tribal lands being added to federal acreage in Alaska in exchange for a 206-acre road corridor through the refuge. The legislation was signed into law, but was blocked by the Interior Department.