King Cove Renews Hope of Approval for Road for Medical Access

map of the Alaska Peninsula
A map of the Alaska Peninsula, including the village of King Cove. Image via Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Residents of the Alaska Peninsula fishing community of King Cove say they are hopeful that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will visit their fishing community on Alaska’s Aleutian Chain soon and remove barriers to completing a one-land gravel road to the all-weather airport at nearby Cold Bay.

King Cove is the home of Peter Pan Seafood’s largest facility, a year-round seafood plant processing king, bairdi and opilio tanner crab, Alaska Pollock, Pacific cod, salmon, halibut and black cod delivered from fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. The plant has the largest salmon-canning capacity of any plant in Alaska. At peak season there are some 500 employees working there.

The community lies between two volcanic mountains near the end of the Alaska Peninsula, 625 miles southwest of Anchorage. The gravel airstrip there is typically closed for over 100 days every year due to bad weather. Nearly 40% of flights not canceled are impacted or delayed by high winds, fog, rain or snow squalls. The Cold Bay airport, less than 30 miles away, has Alaska’s fifth-longest runway and is closed an average of 10 days a year.

Over the past eight years, for lack of a road to Cold Bay, there have been 157 medevacs, many of them by the U.S. Coast Guard in dangerous weather conditions. When weather makes air medevacs too dangerous, the only alternative for emergency medical cases is a three-hour boat ride from King Cove to Cold Bay. Over the past four decades a number of deaths have been attributed to the lack of road access to the Cold Bay airport, including a 1981 plane crash during an attempted medevac that killed all four people onboard.

A number of environmental entities oppose completion of the road because it would require connecting two existing roads on either side through Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. They contend that the road would have an adverse impact on food sources, including eelgrass, for migrating waterfowl who use the refuge as breeding grounds and to rest on their long annual journeys.

King Cove Mayor Warren Wilson said many residents of King Cove have either been medevaced themselves or seen family members require such rescue in harsh weather conditions.

Two days before Christmas in 2013 then Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced she would not allow the road project to move forward. It been approved on a bipartisan basis in Congress, conditioned on a public interest determination to connect two existing roads on either side of Izembek.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2013 concluded that a road through the refuge could cause irrevocable damage to the watershed and Jewell agreed with that analysis, finding that a land exchange could not compensate for the special qualities of existing wildlife refuge lands.

In January of 2018 Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed a land-trade agreement that would allow the road to be built. Nine environmental groups went to court to challenge the pact.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason in Anchorage ruled against Zinke, saying that the project would have reversed previous policy without explanation. The Associated Press reported that in her written decision Gleason said Zinke was required to acknowledge that the road was a reversal of precious Interior Department policy and to provide an explanation.

“An agency may not simply discard prior factual findings without a reasoned explanation, but that is not what happened here,” she wrote.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a proponent of the road, said Jewell “made a horrible decision eight years ago and it is the good people of King Cove who have paid the price ever since.” 

She has reiterated her request to Haaland, who has prioritized tribal consultation, to visit King Cove and address the road issue for the protection of local residents. “It is simply unconscionable that the federal government has failed to protect these Alaskans’ health and safety, especially in the midst of a global pandemic that has made emergency medical access all the more critical,” she said.