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King Cove and Murkowski grumble over federal report on refuge road alternatives

WASHINGTON -- Advocates for an emergency medical road out of King Cove took aim at the U.S. Interior Department this week for essentially burying a $100,000 study on alternatives to allowing a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

The report is the latest turn in a decadeslong fight between the city of King Cove and the federal government over a proposed gravel road that would cut a 10-mile path through the refuge. Residents say the road is needed for medical evacuations from the remote area. Commercial traffic would be prohibited.

King Cove is a remote Southwest Alaska town of 800 people -- 1,300 when the Peter Pan Seafoods processing plant is operating in full swing. It sits on the Alaska Peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, 18 miles from Cold Bay, which though much smaller has an airport with one of Alaska's longest runways.

Between the towns lies a stretch of the Izembek refuge, home to hundreds of species and a key stopover point for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has fought relentlessly over the road with the Interior Department, which won't allow it. She argues lives are on the line and there is no good alternative to the road for medical evacuations.

Now Murkowski is framing a study commissioned by the department on alternatives to the road as "wasted taxpayer dollars" that ignores the needs of residents.

"I am also shocked that despite repeated promises, and despite this study being completed last summer, there is nothing in Interior's $13.3 billion budget request to help King Cove. This is what you do, if your goal is to run out the clock without making the right decision," Murkowski said this week.

Murkowski promised to "redouble" her efforts to make the road a reality and announced an April 14 congressional hearing on the lack of reliable emergency medical transportation for the residents of King Cove.

The road debate predates Murkowski's efforts, though the focus on medical evacuations is one she has championed, keeping a running count of medical evacuations since the start of 2014. (There have been 40 medical evacuations, 15 carried out by the U.S. Coast Guard.)

In the 1990s, the justification given for the road was different. Bruce Babbitt, Interior secretary from 1993 to 2001, noted in a 2014 opinion piece that nearly two decades earlier, Alaska Sens. Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens wanted to build the same road, but to connect salmon canneries in King Cove with the airport in Cold Bay "to expand and speed shipping."

Babbitt, like current Secretary Sally Jewell, opposed the road, and President Bill Clinton vetoed a bill that would have funded it.

Instead, a 1998 earmark offered $37.5 million to King Cove to upgrade its health clinic and buy a hovercraft for medical evacuations.

It did, though it took a while. King Cove acquired a $9 million, federally funded hovercraft, which it used from 2007 to 2010 to evacuate patients to the airport at Cold Bay. The city also built a road to the edge of the refuge.

But the hovercraft was moved to Akutan Island in 2010, to carry mail and seafood industry workers, when King Cove decided it was too expensive to maintain at roughly $1 million a year -- and that 30 percent of the time, waves were too high and winds too swift for it to cross Cold Bay.

The decision also came on the heels of a coup by Murkowski: In 2009, she included a provision in a public lands bill offering a state-for-federal land swap to complete the road.

But after four years of environmental study and a visit to the refuge herself, Jewell handed down another "no" in December 2013. Jewell said then a road through the refuge "would cause irreversible damage not only to the refuge itself but to the wildlife that depend on it. ... I understand the need for reliable methods of medical transport from King Cove, but I have concluded that other methods of transport remain that could be improved to meet community needs."

The how -- and how much -- of those alternatives led Jewell to authorize a new study that was completed in June 2015 and delivered to Murkowski the next month, according to a letter now available online.

Murkowski and residents of King Cove said the report and its rollout show the department isn't interested in supporting an outcome beyond objecting to the road, which King Cove residents see as the best possible option.

"The study simply rehashes alternatives such as a helicopter, a new airport for King Cove, and a marine vessel, none of which would work or would be affordable," said Della Trumble, spokesperson for King Cove Corp., a Native organization. "All of these alternatives were examined and dismissed in past environmental impact statements. ... This was a complete waste of time and money."

Murkowski and residents say the report's delivery showed Interior officials are not much invested in actually using it.

Michael Tadeo, Murkowski's spokesperson on the Senate Energy Committee, of which she is chairman, said she received a hard copy of the report at the time, but no digital version was made available.

Gary Hennigh, city administrator for King Cove, said the Interior Department gave officials there an "unofficial" copy of the draft report last summer but nothing final. After Murkowski questioned Jewell about the report at a hearing in February, Hennigh and others received an email from Michael Johnson, Interior's senior adviser for Alaska affairs, including a copy of the report, referencing the mention at the committee hearing and noting it would soon be posted on the Alaska District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website.

As of Friday afternoon, the report did not appear to have been posted on the website.

Interior spokesperson Leah Duran declined to answer questions about the report's intended use, cost or outcome but noted "the report was hand-delivered to Sen. Murkowski and has been made available to anyone who asked."

Duran also provided a link 2013 press release on the decision to deny a road through the Izembek refuge, appended with links to the report and a 2015 letter from Jewell to Murkowski. Duran confirmed the links to the report and letter were added Thursday after questioning by Alaska Dispatch News.

In Johnson's email to King Cove officials, he acknowledged the long-standing divide between the department and the residents of King Cove, and said the report was intended as a launching pad for discussion. It was not widely distributed so it wouldn't "unnecessarily inflame tensions" in the ongoing fight.

But the flames were nonetheless stoked, with advocates for the road arguing the department refused their input.

"It's unconscionable that the department didn't bother to talk to the local people or allow the Army Corps of Engineers, who was commissioned to conduct the study, to work with us," Trumble said.

"It is offensive that Interior would design a study that deliberately excludes the very people whose lives are at stake," Murkowski said in a statement.

The alternatives

The 118-page report, however, provides a fairly thorough review of three main alternatives to a road: a 150-foot, ice-capable monohull ferry; a new airport; and a helicopter. Each of those is subdivided into suggested locations and specifications.

For the most part, the options would likely cost more than the gravel road through the refuge, though there is disagreement over the cost of maintaining an evacuation road and whether it would really be accessible year-round. Many opponents of the road, meanwhile, speculate it would not remain off-limits to commercial access for long.

The ferry option scored the highest in terms of reliability, with an expectation it could operate more than 99 percent of the time. The three ferry options included projected costs of $30 million to $42 million, with operations and maintenance running between $872,000 and $1.14 million a year, similar to the hovercraft maintenance, which the city said was too great to bear.

The ferry would also have the longest medical evacuation times, with projections of 3.5 to 5 hours between King Cove and Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

A ferry would also require major infrastructure changes at the Cold Bay dock. Passengers "must travel up a 20-foot ladder from the boat to reach the wharf deck. This can be dangerous, particularly for those who are not in good physical shape, especially when sea conditions cause the vessel to move," the report said.

"The ferry would be particularly useful in conditions that were too turbulent, too cloudy, or at night, when use of the King Cove Airport would not be recommended," the report found. But it noted that roads to the ferry face avalanche hazards and difficult travel conditions.

The report also considered several options for a new airport in King Cove, one facing fewer weather and mountain hazards. "Medevac flights would respond when called from Unalaska (190 miles away) or Anchorage (620 miles), and take patients from the new airport directly to Anchorage," the report said.

Capital costs ranged from $47 million to $84 million, with annual maintenance running from $223,000 to $675,000. Dependability rated about 95 percent, and it would take between 2.4 and 3 hours to get someone to Anchorage.

But the "risks of night operations and air travel in general for the King Cove-Cold Bay area, as well as for the Aleutian Island region, are significant" -- it is one of the "windiest and rainiest" regions in the United States, and mountainous terrain exacerbates the dangers, the report notes.

The third option explored in the report is a more dedicated helicopter option, similar to the method King Cove residents say isn't working now. Capital costs for a helicopter with a dedicated heliport run between $2.8 million and $28.3 million, with yearly operations and maintenance costs upward of $2 million. The heliports are less dependable -- available 67.5 percent to 82.6 percent of the time, according to the report's projections.

"As with the airport alternatives, the risks of night operations and air travel in general for the King Cove-Cold Bay area, as well as for the Aleutian Island region, are significant," the report said.

Several years back, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service projected a road through the refuge would cost about $22 million to build and more than $600,000 annually to maintain.

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