King Cove access road is one step closer to fruition

A long-awaited road project at the far end of the Alaska Peninsula is one step closer to fruition. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a draft Environmental Impact Statement for proposed single-lane road construction connecting King Cove and Cold Bay.

King Cove residents have pushed for this project since a resolution for the road was first passed in 1976, according to City Manager Gary Hennigh. The city has gone through several alternatives in the past for getting better transportation access, especially for emergencies.

The proposed gravel road would be approximately 19.4 miles to 21.6 miles long and cross the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The road would cost about $24 million, while other alternatives in the draft EIS are more expensive.

The EIS also analyzes swapping around 56,000 acres of land between the state and King Cove Corp. in exchange for about 206 acres from the federal government, which would be required under some of the alternatives. The exchanges are authorized under the Omnibus Public Lands Act of 2009. In a statement, Della Trumble, spokeswoman for King Cove Corp. and Agdaagux Tribe, said this type of land exchange is unprecedented.

Now that the draft EIS is out, the next step is the public comment period lasting trough mid-May with meetings in five communities surrounding the refuge plus Anchorage. An analysis will follow.

“Our plan is to have a final EIS released in the fall,” said USFWS spokesman Bruce Woods.

This EIS will lead to a Record of Decision and the Secretary of the Interior’s public interest finding.

“We’ve presented five alternatives in the draft EIS. We have not selected a preferred alternative,” he said. A selection will be made after the current comment period.

The alternatives include two separate road alignments, hovercraft operations, ferry use between Lenard Harbor and the Cold Bay dock, or no action. The hovercraft and ferry alternatives wouldn’t require land exchanges but are considerably more expensive.

According to the draft EIS, the lifecycle cost of the southern or central land exchanges for a road would be $23 million and $26 million, respectively. Hovercraft operations would cost $44 million and Lenard Harbor ferry operations and Cold Bay dock improvements would cost $70 million. No action would still hold a $26 million price tag for its lifecycle.

The King Cove and Cold Bay communities have sought a connecting road for some time, primarily for airport access for health emergencies.

In 1998, Congress provided the borough with $37.5 million in the King Cove Health and Safety Act. This was to provide airport upgrades, a health clinic and conservation of a marine road transportation system. A hovercraft was purchased and a road was developed. This still didn’t prove to be effective for the residents.

“But the community has not found the hovercraft to be a complete solution to the problems, which is why they’ve come back again and asked for the road,” Woods said.

King Cove officials and tribal leaders are united in their support of this step forward in a project they’ve been pursuing for years. Assistant City Manager Bonnie Folz said the road is definitely needed and sent a press release outlining their support of something they feel is necessary and overdue.

Trumble states this has been a decades-long battle, during which the community has lost too many lives in the struggle to access the airport during emergencies. She also said the testimony during the EIS process shed light on how the Izembek wilderness was created “without any consultation from the people of King Cove.”

“These injustices need to be corrected,” said Trumble. “We should be taken seriously by the federal government, and particularly the Secretary of the Interior, who has a trust responsibility to us. We have sacrificed too much already, and it is time to make it right.”

King Cove officials state that without the transfer, transportation is limited to small plane travel that is not suitable or safe in emergencies. The other option is through U.S. Coast Guard rescue. The base in Kodiak is 430 miles away. A hovercraft transportation option was attempted but shut down last year due to costs.

The release states that severe weather delayed a Coast Guard medevac on at least one occasion and 11 people have died during unsuccessful trips over the last four decades. Hennigh said these deaths were the results of weather-related plane crashes, including short flights between King Cove and Cold Bay. He said the road would eliminate this risk. Flight delays during emergencies are also an issue.

“The road (to the Cold Bay airport) is and has always been the only safe, reliable transportation option for the life, safety and health of our residents,” states Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack. “It is the only workable long-term solution.”

The city isn’t alone in these thoughts. Alaska’s delegation all issued statements upon the draft’s release to praise the progress.

“I voted for this land exchange in 2009, and it’s good to see that we’re making progress on a decades-long struggle,” U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said in his release. “As I’ve told Secretary Salazar, it’s time to finish this, build the road, and let the community get on with their lives. The King Cove Corp. is giving up 20 percent of its land for a simple gravel road. That shows how much of a priority emergency access to the airport in Cold Bay is.”

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski states the decision to pave the way for an Interior Department ruling is a “welcome one.”

“When you consider the number of life-threatening accidents that have occurred due to the challenges of flying into King Cove during foul weather, I believe there is no greater good we could do than to provide safe road access to the all-weather airport at nearby Cold Bay,” she said in her release. “Conserving our natural spaces is important, but we have to balance that with the safety needs of local residents.”

Murkowski encourages Alaskans to weigh in on the public comment period.

Congressman Don Young also released a statement, saying, “The residents of King Cove have been waiting for over 20 years to build this road and today’s news is a step in the right direction. The next step in this process is for Alaskans to comment and I am confident that Alaskans will make their voices heard. Having worked with King Cove on this project for years, anything that prevents this road from being built and being built soon, is unacceptable to me.”

11/07/2016 - 6:01pm