Waste Abounds in the Land of the Midnight Sun | Citizens Against Government Waste

Waste Abounds in the Land of the Midnight Sun

The WasteWatcher

On Wednesday, April 5, 2017 the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands held a hearing to consider the construction of a road linking the town of King Cove to Cold Bay, and the latter’s all-weather airport.  At issue is H.R. 218, introduced by Federal Lands Subcommittee member Don Young (R-Alaska) in January 2017, which would swap 43,000 acres of state land for 206 acres of federal land within the confines of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.  A single lane gravel road would then be built on this site.  Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sponsored similar legislation in the same month.

For decades, the Alaska delegation has fought for this road.  Initially, then-Sens. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) made the case that the road would expedite the movement of seafood from the salmon canneries in King Cove to the airport in Cold Bay for distribution.

However, the most recent Alaskan delegation has shifted its strategy, arguing instead that the construction of the road is necessary for public safety.  Like many small communities in Alaska, King Cove is not accessible by road, relying upon transportation via plane or boat.

Regardless of Rep. Young and Sen. Murkowski claim, it remains clear that commercial interests, not medical emergencies, are the primary driver of the project.  According to a February 24, 2013 Washington Post article, “Originally, both area residents and state officials viewed the road as a way to bolster the region's fishing industry...when King Cove passed its first resolution calling for its construction, it did not mention safety concerns and instead called for the road to ‘link together two communities having one of the state's premier fishing port/harbors.’”  The safety rationalization emerged only after it appeared unlikely that the Izembek road would receive federal funds.

However, the argument that the road will be safer than current methods of transportation from King Cove is also dubious.  The Post article quoted former Eastern Aleutian Medical Director for the Public Health Service Peter Mjos, who stated, “Combined with darkness, avalanche conditions, and ice-glazed roads, an attempt to travel the proposed road would be foolish beyond any reason, regardless the emergency or business.  Any attempt to maintain the road for travel in such conditions would clearly jeopardize life.” 

The federal government has already made strides to address the safety issue, providing $37.5 million in 1998 for a hovercraft, port terminals, an access road, and an upgraded telemedicine facility.  This agreement, reached between the Clinton Administration and Alaska’s former senators, was to exist in lieu of the Izembek road.  According to the Interior Department, the hovercraft successfully completed every medical evacuation it was tasked with during the time it was in service.  In fact, the borough’s mayor called it a “lifesaving machine” in 2008.  After three years of providing emergency evacuations, the borough instead decided to use the hovercraft to transport workers to an alternate seafood plant.  As of September 2016, the borough intended to sell the vessel.

While the Trump Administration has yet to take a stance on the issue, its choice should be informed by prior Department of Interior officials from the Bush, Clinton, Nixon, and Obama Administrations that opposed the road.  Taxpayers have supplied $50 million to provide emergency medical access for citizens of King Cove so far, or $52,000 per resident.  Despite these facts, the next generation of Alaskan politicians continues to pursue the project, suggesting that forces beyond public safety are what truly motivate the push for the road.

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