Senator Murkowski: Coast Guard Cost Estimate is Further Proof Road is Only Viable Option

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) yesterday wrote her fourth letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell since the rejection of a lifesaving road for the people of King Cove, Alaska. This new letter was in response to a suggestion from Jewell that the U.S. Coast Guard could establish a permanent air station on the Alaska Peninsula to satisfy the emergency medical access needs of King Cove.

Murkowski sent the letter to Jewell after receiving cost estimates for such an air station from the Coast Guard. She noted that it was unrealistic to expect the Coast Guard to build a new permanent base and depart from its core missions in Alaska, and that this approach would also continue to expose those who serve in the Coast Guard to unnecessary and avoidable danger.

“We all appreciate the brave work of the men and women of the Coast Guard, but it is not realistic, appropriate, or fair to expect them to solve this problem,” Murkowski said. “It is unconscionable to consider putting even more lives at risk and then claim that it is somehow a solution.”

In response to questions from Murkowski, the Coast Guard confirmed on Tuesday that maintaining a permanent presence at Cold Bay to ferry the injured and sick across the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to the all-weather airport in Cold Bay was outside the scope of its core mission and would be far more expensive than the proposed road.

According to the Coast Guard, establishing a permanent station at Cold Bay would cost an estimated $165.8 million in today’s dollars – or roughly eight times what the state of Alaska estimates it would cost to build the short, one-lane, gravel road, which is overwhelmingly supported by local residents and Murkowski.

A cost breakdown from the Coast Guard’s letter to Murkowski:

  • $113.6 for construction of a permanent base;
  • $52.2 million for two MH-60T helicopters.

In addition, the Coast Guard estimates it would cost another $11.4 million per year to crew, operate, and maintain the remote base.

Murkowski praised the Coast Guard’s willingness to assist whenever it can, but the fact remains that by law non-maritime emergency medical evacuations are a second-tier priority for the Coast Guard. “In other words,” Murkowski wrote, “in the event of a conflict between priorities, the people of King Cove will lose.”

Murkowski also reiterated that it is deeply irresponsible to force the members of the Coast Guard to repeatedly put their lives at risk when the proposed road – as stipulated in the law Congress passed and President Obama signed in 2009 – would provide safe, year-round access to emergency medical care. 

“While I am grateful for the continued bravery and selflessness of the men and women of the Coast Guard, I am dedicated to ensuring that we do not needlessly expose them to any greater danger than is absolutely necessary,” Murkowski wrote to Jewell. “The status quo now risks not only the lives of the residents of King Cove, but also those of our guardsmen and women. This is particularly unacceptable given that the residents of King Cove could have all-weather access to medical care if you choose to allow construction of a few miles of one-lane gravel road.”

In the past five years, the Coast Guard has conducted 22 emergency medical transports out of King Cove – approximately four or five per year. This year alone, since Secretary Jewell’s rejection of the road, the Coast Guard has completed five medevacs – at an estimated cost to taxpayers of as much as $210,000 each.

Murkowski said the search for alternatives to the road is decades old. King Cove has considered every possible option – some have been tried and failed, while others have been researched only to be found incompatible with the North Pacific Ocean’s extreme weather.

Murkowski’s letter to Jewell is available here. The U.S. Coast Guard’s letter to Murkowski is available here. Additional background information about Murkowski’s fight for approval of the short, one-lane, gravel road is available here.

Jewell has yet to reply to any of Murkowski’s letters, so we unfortunately cannot provide links to those.