Remote town sues feds over blocked road project

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The remote Aleut community of King Cove, Alaska, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Interior Department over its refusal to allow the construction of a 10-mile gravel road to an all-weather airport.

The lawsuit comes after nearly 20 years of wrangling over the road, which would allow residents of the coastal fishing town to reach the Cold Bay Airport by land, instead of by boat or plane, during the region’s frequent bouts with treacherous weather.

The airport is the community’s only means of reaching hospitals in Anchorage when residents sustain injuries or face illnesses that cannot be treated by the local clinic.

“This is about protecting the lives of human beings,” said Della Trumble, spokesperson for the Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove and the King Cove (Native) Corporation, in a statement. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s decision “has violated her trust responsibility to protect the health and well-being of Alaska Natives.”

The lawsuit, filed by local residents, tribes and two governments, comes after Ms. Jewell overruled in December an agreement to allow the road’s construction by swapping 1,806 acres of federal land for 55,393 acres of tribal and state land.

Environmentalists have fought the building of a road because it would cross the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to eel grass fed on by migratory birds.

As an alternative, the community was given federal funds for a landing craft, but residents say the vehicle is too expensive to maintain and ill-suited for the town’s rough weather. King Cove’s airstrip is often closed due to high winds.

This year, 11 people have been evacuated from King Cove to the Cold Bay Airport for medical emergencies, usually by the Coast Guard. One elderly resident, Leff Kenezuroff of the Native Village of Belkofski, was transported during severe weather across Cold Bay in a crab boat.

“When we got to the Cold Bay dock, I couldn’t climb up the ladder, so they hoisted me up in a crab pot,” said Mr. Kenezuroff, who had suffered a heart attack, in a statement. “It was terrible.”

King Cove officials said they filed the lawsuit 140 days after asking Ms. Jewell to reconsider her decision. So far they said they have received no response.

“We traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with her in late March,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack in a statement. “She promised us a reply of some sort. We have delayed this litigation for more than four months while waiting for that reply, but have heard nothing from Secretary Jewell. This is intolerable, and it seems she does not care about our safety or health. We are very disheartened and insulted by her decision and by her failure to even respond to us.”

King Cove Mayor Henry Mack said in a statement that the town was lucky nobody has been killed this year traveling to the Cold Bay airport. Nineteen deaths have been attributed to the community’s lack of a safe passage to the airport.

“We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t lost any lives this year during these challenging” medical evacuations, said Mr. Mack. “Life is a precious gift. We’re hopeful this lawsuit will correct the injustice done to the people of King Cove.” 

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