King Cove groups sue over Cold Bay road denial

Sean Doogan

A group of Alaska native tribes, corporations and city and borough governments representing residents of King Cove has filed a lawsuit in federal court in an attempt to get judges to do what U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has so far refused to do: allow a road to nearby Cold Bay.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Juneau, asks the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska to prevent Jewell and the Department of the Interior from stopping the road, which would be extended by 11 miles to allow residents of King Cove, in Southwest Alaska, better access to the all-weather airstrip at Cold Bay, about 19 miles away.

Jewell said in December 2013 that she wouldn't allow the road, even though it had been approved by Congress and included a land swap that would have given the nearby Izembek National Widlife refuge 60,000 acres of land for about 200 acres of road access.

King Cove has a small medical clinic that cannot handle major medical emergencies. It also doesn't have an airstrip that can handle jets or support landings and takeoffs at night or during bad weather. And the weather is frequently bad in King Cove, with wind and fog main reasons for the lack of consistent access to air evacuations for sick residents.

Nearby Cold Bay has a large airstrip that is better suited to dealing with bad weather and larger aircraft. Boats have been tried in an effort to connect the two communities, but in bad weather the trip can be too dangerous, according to local residents. Other possible solutions -- including a trial run for a hovercraft connection between the two towns -- have all proven useless in bad weather.

King Cove resident Etta Kuzakin said people have died waiting for the weather to turn. Kuzakin said that on March 4, 2013, she would have been one of them herself if not for the presence of a Coast Guard helicopter that was training in the area.

"I was going into premature labor with my daughter," Kuzakin said. "I was only 34 weeks along and had to have the baby by caesarean section. If the Coast Guard had not been nearby, they might have been able to save my daughter, but I would have surely bled out."

Kuzakin said she is getting fed up with the delays for a road, which area residents say is the only way to provide year-round access for medical emergency flights out of King Cove.

"We feel insulted," Kuzakin said.

Jewell has said that the road would impose on eel grass beds -- favorite nesting beds for Pacific black brant and emperor geese. Jewell said she wanted the King Cove villagers to come up with alternatives to building a road.

Kuzakin said she accompanied other area residents on a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet Jewell in late March. Kuzakin said they made Jewell aware of the failings of other alternatives to the road and provided her with more information about the limitations, weather and topography of the area. But according to Kuzakin, Jewell has not responded to their continued pleas for a reversal of her 2013 decision scuttling the road idea.

Going through the courts will be a long process. But King Cove residents said they felt they had no other choice.

"We will continue to fight for this until we get the resolution we would like," said Della Trumble, spokesperson for the Agdaagux Tribe and the King Cove Corp. -- two of the groups that filed the lawsuit. "We are not going to go away."

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