King Cove, Murkowski Mark Eight Years and 157 Medevacs Since Rejection of Life-Saving Road
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) today issued the following statement on the eight-year anniversary of the Department of the Interior’s rejection of a short, one-lane, gravel, life-saving road needed to connect King Cove, Alaska to the all-weather airport in nearby Cold Bay. The single-lane road is crucial to providing reliable emergency medical access for all who live in King Cove.
Two days before Christmas in 2013, former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced she would not allow the simple road – approved by Congress on a bipartisan basis, but conditioned on a public interest determination – to be built to connect two existing roads on either side of the 315,000-acre Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. Since then, King Cove has been forced to endure an additional 157 medevacs. Most occurred in dangerous weather conditions and many had to be carried out by the U.S. Coast Guard, risking the lives of crews and patients alike.
“Sally Jewell made a horrible decision eight years ago, and it is the good people of King Cove who have paid the price ever since. A single medevac is too many, let alone 157. It is simply unconscionable that the federal government has failed to protect these Alaskans’ health and safety, especially in the midst of a global pandemic that has made emergency medical access all the more critical,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski reiterated her request to current Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland – who has prioritized tribal consultation – to visit King Cove and finally address this decades-long environmental injustice.
“I am calling on Secretary Haaland to visit King Cove to see the need to protect local residents’ health and safety as soon as possible. The federal government has a trust responsibility to the Tribes of King Cove, but it has been broken for decades. I also urge her to consider alternatives that could help us construct this road in an environmentally sound manner sooner than litigation will allow. As governments, Tribes must deliver a wide range of critical services, including healthcare, to their citizens. The Secretary must recognize this and act now, because King Cove needs this life-saving road more than ever,” Murkowski said.
Numerous King Cove officials today expressed hope that Secretary Haaland would uphold the federal government’s trust responsibility and help them. The officials held a teleconference with Haaland in August and have asked her to visit their community to better understand the need for a life-saving road.
“Secretary Haaland understands our deep-rooted connection to our ancestral land where we and our Aleut families have lived for thousands of years,” said King Cove (Native) Corporation Spokeswoman Della Trumble. “She recognizes the trust responsibility the federal government has to Native people.”
“We’re hopeful U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will visit King Cove soon to talk with residents and see first-hand the daily challenges we face,” said King Cove Mayor Warren Wilson. “Many people in King Cove have either been medevaced themselves or have family members who experienced dangerous medevacs during harsh weather.”
“We know that Secretary Haaland understands we love our families, and we want them to be out of harm’s way,” said Agdaagux Tribal President Etta Kuzakin Kuzakin. “We also love King Cove, which is our home.”
Kuzakin was medevaced from King Cove by the Coast Guard in 2013 in stormy weather while in premature labor with her youngest daughter, Sunnie Rae. The mother and daughter would not have survived without the Coast Guard rescue, which only occurred because the Guard was nearby on another mission.
“We’re hopeful the Secretary will support us,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Alvin Osterback. “This issue is an injustice the federal government needs to correct so King Cove residents can feel safe when they require access to a higher level of care.”
King Cove is located between two volcanic mountains near the end of the Alaska Peninsula, about 625 miles southwest of Anchorage. The small gravel airstrip in King Cove is typically closed by bad weather for more than 100 days each year. Nearly 40 percent of the flights not canceled are impacted or delayed by wind, turbulence, fog, rain, or snow squalls. By comparison, the all-weather airport in Cold Bay, which is less than 30 miles away from King Cove, is home to the fifth-longest runway in the state and closed an average of 10 days per year.
In 2018, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed a land exchange agreement to facilitate the construction of the life-saving road. It continues to be held up by litigation from environmental groups.
In 2016, Murkowski chaired a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to press for the life-saving road, receiving compelling testimony from local residents and a retired Coast Guard commander who located a plane crash near King Cove that had resulted in multiple fatalities.
In 2015, National Review published a longform article about King Cove entitled “Deadly Environmentalism,” which provides a comprehensive history of the issue and is well worth reading.
In 2009, Murkowski secured passage of legislation facilitating a land exchange to provide for the life-saving road, but former Secretary Jewell stunningly determined that it was not in the public interest. Eight years later, 157 medevacs continue to show just how awful that decision was.