WASHINGTON – A group of native tribes in Alaska is suing the Obama administration after being blocked for years from building an emergency road from their fishing hamlet to a vital airport over preservation concerns.
For three decades, the predominantly Aleut fishing community of King Cove has waited for the federal government to permit a one-lane, 11-mile gravel track giving the residents better access to an all-weather airport about 19 miles away. Some say access to the airport is a matter of life or death, but the federal government all along has resisted out of concern for wildlife and the native habitat.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, claims the Interior Department’s refusal is a violation of federal law and argues no other reasonable transportation alternative exists.
“This is about protecting the lives of human beings,” said Della Trumble, a spokesperson for the Agdaagux Tribe and the King Cove Corp. – two of the groups suing the government.
Local Aleutian elders claim 19 people have died in the past 34 years as a result of not being able to get off the island during emergency medical evacuations.
This year, 11 people have been medically evacuated, according to village officials.
Trumble, 424 shareholders of King Cove Corp. and the city of King Cove itself – which has 938 residents – are all listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They say they know taking the issue to court will likely make an already lengthy process even longer but say they have exhausted all other options.
“We will continue to fight for this until we get the resolution we like,” Trumble said.
“Secretary [Sally] Jewell has ignored the King Cove folks for six months – despite her very public promise to find a viable alternative to the land exchange,” Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told FoxNews.com.
“You can imagine their frustration with Interior when they can’t even get Jewell to acknowledge them. Jewell may be hoping this issue just going away, but it won’t. The people of King Cove are fighting to keep their families safe – that’s not something you give up on.”
King Cove first tried to get a road built in the area in 1998. When that failed, they took their fight to Congress and reached a compromise: the city would receive $37 million for water access to Cold Bay, which included the use of a hovercraft. But then bad weather and a costly upkeep hit, and the project was grounded.
Since then, efforts to revive the road project have tanked -- with many residents in King Cove putting the blame on the Obama administration. On Dec. 23, the Interior Department announced it was reversing its decision to build the road because of the negative impact on grizzly bears, caribou and water fowl.
While environmental groups applauded the decision, the choice to put a priority on animals over people has caused outrage among locals.
Calls to the Interior Department for comment were not immediately returned.