Energy & Environment

Life-saving route denied for Alaskan community

Life-saving route denied for Alaskan community

Lucy Kenezuroff suffered from chest pains for nearly a day as a blizzard and howling gale-force winds raged across a barren Alaska Peninsula preventing a Coast Guard helicopter rescue team from landing near her King Cove home.

Just days after the 80-year-old woman was saved, a five-month old baby with breathing problems was forced to wait hours for yet another Coast Guard rescue team from 300 miles away to make the dangerous journey.

The risky helicopter rescue missions are necessary because King Cove is only accessible by air or water, and during severe winter storms, air rescues are often delayed when extreme weather conditions prevail.

These victims were lucky and got the medical attention they needed after they were first flown 20 miles to the Cold Bay airport where an emergency aircraft was waiting to transport them another 600 miles to the nearest hospital in Anchorage.

Sadly however, a dozen people have died in plane crashes over the past 30 years trying to reach the Cold Bay airport from the Aleutians borough where the PeterPan Seafoods processing facility operates.

The simple solution would be to construct a one-lane gravel road over the 20-mile distance to be used for medical emergencies.

And the Native Americans who make up the King Cove Corporation are so desperate for the life-saving route they are willing to give the federal government 13,000 acres of their own land for the 200 acres of federal property needed to construct 11 miles of the gravel road.

“Our reason for pursing the road is simple: it will save lives,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in a Feb. 11 letter to President Barack Obama after the federal government denied the request.

“At this time of year, when the weather is often too extreme to permit travel by air, the only alternative is a death-defying, 2.5 hour boat trip through 20-foot seas across Cold Bay, followed by a 20-foot climb up a dock ladder – a trip that is simply impossible for many frail patients or pregnant women,” Murkowski said.

The Interior Department agency ruled against the Native Americans’ desire for the primitive road because the federal property they need is part of a national wildlife refuge and federal officials say it would disturb the animals living there.

“The permanent road would fragment undisturbed habitat for grizzly bear, caribou and salmon and would compromise the protections offered to waterfowl and shorebirds,” said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in announcing the Feb. 5 decision.

It would also disturb eelgrass beds and other wetlands that feed the Pacific black brant, emperor geese and other federally protected waterfowl and shorebirds.

“After extensive dialogue and exhaustive scientific evaluation, the agency has identified a preferred path forward that will ensure this extraordinary refuge and its wilderness are conserved and protected for future generations,” said Ken Salazar, Interior secretary.

That ruling to kill the necessary land exchange now threatens to derail Obama’s nominee to replace Salazar when he retires in the coming weeks. Obama has nominated Sally Jewell, the CEO of an outdoor clothing and sporting goods chain, to replace Salazar.

Murkowski has signaled to the White House in press reports that she is prepared to put a hold on Jewell’s nomination if the lands swap to build the road is not approved.

It was this Alaska lawmaker who inserted language in the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Act ordering the land exchange once the environmental impact study was completed and a determination by the Interior secretary that it was in the public interest to do so.

And in her letter to Obama, Murkowski said “I am prepared to consider all actions available to me as a U.S. senator to convince you and others in your administration that denying the people of King Cove reliable access to medical care would be a travesty.”

During a speech on the House floor last week, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) urged senators to put a hold on Jewell until Salazar is forced to approve the land swap.

“This is an injustice,” Young said.

Salazar has the final say on whether the land swap can proceed, but during his four years as Obama’s Interior cabinet chief, he has never traveled to King Cove to meet with the residents about the emergency road issue.

However, Murkowski and Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) have arranged for Salazar to finally meet with the Alaskans in his Washington, D.C. next week.

Della Trumble, King Cove Corporation administrator, gave an Alaska radio station an example of how they will plead their case.

“One of the elders that’s traveling with us had gone to Cold Bay on a boat with his wife who was being medevaced out of King Cove. And basically, they got off-lifted from a crab boat, in a crab pot, from the boat to the dock in Cold Bay. And that’s just not acceptable,” Trumble said.

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