Floor Seech: King Cove Amendment

*As prepared, not delivered

Mr. President, I am pleased that we are debating the Water Resources Development Act here on the Senate floor.  I believe this is an important bill that addresses needs across our nation.  I thank the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Environment and Public Works Committee for their leadership on it, and for working with Senator Sullivan and me to include a number of priorities for our home state of Alaska. 

As we continue to consider this bill, I want to highlight an amendment that I have filed that would protect the health and safety of almost 1,000 Alaskans.  We will hear a lot about communities in crisis this week, but beyond Flint, Michigan, is a community in Alaska, named King Cove, that remains in crisis because of a heartless decision made by our own federal government.

King Cove’s problem is not lead contamination in its drinking water supply, but something far more fundamental, and something that virtually every other American community takes for granted.  What the people of King Cove are asking for is reliable access to emergency medical transportation.  They simply want to be able to reach proper care, in time, in the event of an injury or illness.

For those who are not familiar with King Cove, it is a remote fishing community located about 625 miles southwest of Anchorage, near the end of the Alaska Peninsula.  Eighty-five percent of its residents are Alaska Natives, including many who are Aleut and members of the federally recognized Agdaagux tribe. 

As with so many of Alaska’s rural communities, King Cove can only be reached by boat or by plane, and that is often a challenge.  The community is nestled on a small spit of land that is surrounded by the ocean and volcanic mountains.  The region is prone to high winds, huge storms, and dense fog.  King Cove has a gravel airstrip, and the small planes that fly there regularly grapple with low visibility, strong turbulence, and gale-force crosswinds.  If you are on the water, it is no better, as local mariners often face the same conditions along with 12-foot seas.

Most of the time, local residents have no desire to travel when weather conditions are severe.  Yet, there are also times when travel cannot be avoided.  When a medical emergency occurs that is beyond the capacity of the small local clinic, you have no choice but to try to make it to Anchorage.  If you are a trauma victim, if you are a woman in early stages of labor, or if you have a serious illness, the King Cove clinic simply cannot provide the care that you need.

So what do you do?  The first step is to transport those who are sick and injured to the nearby community of Cold Bay, which is home to a 10,000-foot long, all-weather runway.  It is one of the longest runways in our State, it is almost always open, and it is located less than 30 miles from King Cove.

The challenge is not getting from Cold Bay to Anchorage, but from King Cove to Cold Bay.  By far the toughest part is the first 30 miles, not the last 600.  And having seen this firsthand, I know what the Alaska Natives who live in King Cove know: the best answer, and the only answer, is to do what virtually every other community in America would do.  And that’s to build a road.  

In this case, what is being sought is a short, gravel, one-lane road that is reserved exclusively for non-commercial use.  That is all that is needed to connect two existing roads, one running out of King Cove, and the other running out of Cold Bay.  That is all that is needed to link the two communities, and to finally protect the health and safety of nearly 1,000 Alaskans.

You may be wondering: why haven’t Alaskans built the road?  And the reason is that we cannot secure permission from our own federal government, because it would cross a small sliver of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge that is designated as federal wilderness.

We thought we had this resolved back in 2009.  We overwhelmingly passed a lands bill through this chamber that was signed into law by President Obama, and it gave the Department of the Interior the ability to approve a road for King Cove.  It was an unbelievable deal: Alaskans offered a roughly 300-to-1 land exchange in the federal government’s favor, asking for just 206 acres for a road corridor in exchange for 61,000 acres of our state lands and Native lands.

Against all odds, the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, rejected that offer on the day before Christmas Eve in 2013.  She decided against “cherry-stemming” those 206 acres – which amount to just 0.07 percent of the refuge – because she claimed she needed to speak for the area’s waterfowl.  She decided that protecting the people of King Cove, while expanding the Izembek refuge by tens of thousands of acres, was somehow not worth it. 

To me, this remains one of the worst decisions made by, and during, the Obama Administration. 

It was cruel and cold-hearted against the Alaska Native people of King Cove, who care deeply about these lands and have stewarded them for thousands of years.

It was baffling, as roads have existed in the refuge since World War II and the Fish and Wildlife Service brags, on its website, that local waterfowl hunting is “world famous” and “spectacular.”

This decision reflected a double standard, as there are countless roads in other refuges all across the country, including refuges in Florida, Maryland, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Arizona, Montana, Missouri, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada, and Washington State—to name a few.

It was also ignorant – ignorant of the fact that human lives have been lost in King Cove, as medevacs were carried out in bad weather.  A total of 19 people have died since 1980, either in plane crashes or because they could not reach help in time. 

The Interior Department’s decision was cynical.  It was callous.  It devastated the people of King Cove, who believed that help was finally on the way.  It shattered the trust responsibility that the federal government is supposed to have to our Native peoples.  And it has left local residents in the same situation they have been in for decades: at the mercy of the elements, left to suffer needless pain, and perhaps even death, should they ever have a medical emergency.

Today, nearly 1,000 days later, it is also clear that Secretary Jewell has decided to wash her hands of this issue.  She promised to help local residents gain reliable transportation to Cold Bay, but instead of working towards a real solution, she has decided to run out the clock.  We have seen no engagement with local residents, no budget requests, and no administrative action – just one topical study of alternatives that have been examined before, and rejected before, as unworkable. 

As Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I held an oversight hearing earlier this year to allow King Cove residents to tell us about the pain, suffering, and anguish this has caused in their community.

We heard about King Cove’s decades-long fight for a life-saving road from its Mayor and the spokeswoman of the Agdaagux tribe. 

We heard strong support for the road from Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor, a member of the Democratic Party, as well as a representative of the National Congress of American Indians. 

We heard about the Valium dispenser at the local medical clinic, where many residents who are afraid of flying come to pick up two pills: one for the flight out King Cove, and one for the flight back. 

We also heard from a retired Coast Guard Commander, who led a mission to locate a plane crash that killed four individuals, including a fisherman who was being medevaced because of an amputated foot.  The Commander told us about the horror of finding those bodies still upright in their seats, with limbs that were frozen and could not be untangled—a memory he said he will never forget.

King Cove has now had a total of 51 more medevacs since Secretary Jewell’s decision in December 2013.  The U.S. Coast Guard has carried out 17 of those medevacs, risking their own crews to rescue those in need.  The patients have suffered terrible pain and trauma, including a man who dislocated both hips when a 600-pound crab pot fell on him; elderly residents with internal bleeding or sepsis or apparent heart attacks; and an infant boy who was struggling to breathe.

This past month was particularly bad one for King Cove.  No fewer than four medevacs have been carried out, and the details are simply jarring.  Take, for example, the elder woman in her 70s, who arrived at the medical clinic with a hip fracture.  She needed to be medevaced to Anchorage, but was forced to wait more than 40 hours for heavy fog to lift so that flights could resume. 

That is what is happening in King Cove, in the absence of a life-saving road.  I understand that it is a long ways away from here.  Most in this chamber will never go there.  But as remote as they are, and as far away they are, and as small as their community may be, I would remind the Senate: this is still an American community.  It is still our job to help them.  And they are not asking for much.

Mr. President, the Senate cannot let this continue.  The people of King Cove are suffering, lives are at stake, and it is entirely within our power to protect them.  My amendment is an opportunity, after decades of waiting and delay and frustration and pain, to finally authorize a short, one-lane, gravel road.

I will not raise my amendment, which Senator Sullivan is cosponsoring with me, for a vote on the Water Resources Development Act.  But I want the Senate to understand: it is time to help the people of King Cove.  We need to ensure they have reliable access to emergency medical transportation.  And we need to do it this year, so we can put an end to the dangers and suffering this community is enduring at the hands of our federal government.

Related Issues: Alaska Natives & Rural Alaska