Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she will not back down on a life-saving road to an all-weather airport Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell rejected in December
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sen. Lisa Murkowski squared off against Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at a budget hearing on Wednesday.
Murkowski used her time during opening remarks to once again bring up the issue of King Cove’s need for a road to an all-weather airport at nearby Cold Bay.
“This road is non-negotiable. The health and safety of the people of King Cove is non-negotiable,” Murkowski said. “I will do everything in my power to make sure that the needs of these people are taken care of and put first.”
Jewell rejected the road in December, citing concerns that the 10-mile gravel road would go through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
“It is a very, very important and unique habitat and the determination by Fish and Wildlife Service is it would be very disruptive to build a road through that area,” Jewell said.
Since her rejection there have been seven medevacs from King Cove, four of which involved the U.S. Coast Guard landing in severe weather.
“A beating heart is more important than a duck. Anyone who throws any other issue into that is wrong. There is nothing more important than human life,” said Bonita Babcock as she choked back tears.
Babcock is a community health aide at the medical clinic in King Cove. She’s seen firsthand the need for a road when she deals with patients who desperately await a medevac from the Coast Guard during a storm.
Residents said they understand the need to preserve the habitat, but not at the expense of their families’ lives.
“Our ancestors have lived out there for four to five thousand years,” said King Cove Corporation Spokeswoman Della Trumble. “We have Aleut village sites all the way through that corridor from King Cove into Cold Bay. That’s part of who we are. And we were brought up to live off the land, but we were taught to only take what you need so we always had a renewable resource.”
“The notion that you must protect Alaska from Alaska Natives, our First People — it’s insulting,” Murkowski said. “And that’s the way Alaskans feel. We feel insulted that we cannot care for the land and the animals and the birds and still provide for a safe, reliable access.”
Jewell said because King Cove is still 600 miles from the hospital, emergency transportation would still be needed regardless of a road to Cold Bay.
“The medevacs would continue,” she explained. “There is a medical clinic that stabilizes patients and prepares them for transport. The issue with the road is only a factor for medical evacuations where the weather is not conducive to getting people into the King Cove airport, but it’s OK at the Cold Bay airport.”
King Cove residents say that’s that problem: The weather.
A video of a Coast Guard medevac from February shows how bad the weather can get — with extremely dense fog and high winds, sometimes up to 100 mph. Residents said that’s a common occurrence in their village; they think it will take something catastrophic to get Jewell’s attention.
“Unfortunately, we believe that may be what happens, is that someone actually has to die or the Coast Guard, God forbid, crashes with the crew on board with a patient, ” Trumble said. “I hate to think that’s what it’s going to take for the government to understand how important this is for us.”
While Jewell maintains the Coast Guard is a viable alternative to building a road, Murkowski said it’s not. Each Coast Guard medevac costs nearly a quarter-million dollars. She said to make the agency the primary source of King Cove’s medical needs it would take two additional helicopters, at $26 million a piece, and at least half a million dollars a year in per diem costs to house the staff needed.
“We’re not asking for anything that’s over the top. Right now it’s a 10-mile strip that’s needed for safe access for our families,” said Etta Kuzakin.
She knows just how hard it is to get out of King Cove during a medical emergency. Her daughter Sunny Rae just celebrated her first birthday but had a dramatic entry into the world. Kuzakin went into labor during a terrible storm, so bad even the Coast Guard almost didn’t make it in.
Kuzakin said the nurse at the clinic begged the Coast Guard several times before they attempted to land for the emergency. She was taken to Anchorage and Sunny Rae was born just a few hours later by C-section, a surgery the clinic doesn’t have the staff or equipment to handle.
“We’ll keep asking, we’ll keep fighting,” she said. “We will fight, and I hate to use that word, ‘fight.’ We will be here forever.”
Residents have until April 15 to give Jewell a list of alternative solutions to building a road. They said that’s also there chance to present her with evidence that the road is the only solution there is.
“This is a safe and easy way to help our fellow citizens and the only thing standing in the way is our own federal government’s decision to place a higher value on the birds than it does on the health and safety of my state’s citizens and that’s simply wrong,” Murkowski said.