Alaska village's $9M hovercraft goes bust. So now what?

Sen. Frank Murkowski took to the Senate floor in early October 1998 to give his colleagues a meteorology lesson.

The Alaska Republican pointed to a map of King Cove, where Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea clash head-on with the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles southwest of Anchorage.

"This is the area where all the storms basically are initiated on the West Coast and down to California," he said. Living in rural Alaska is a "harsh reality."

His argument was that King Cove's roughly 700 residents at the time needed a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in order to access an all-weather airport in Cold Bay to get medical care on the Alaska mainland. Planes, boats and hovercrafts wouldn't cut it, he said. They'd be battered in Cold Bay's savage crosswinds and waves.

A hovercraft would be particularly problematic, he suggested. They have a tendency to skid, require a tremendous amount of maintenance and are expensive to operate.

"I wish it were a viable alternative," he said. "Who is going to underwrite the cost?"

His words were prophetic of the government debacle to come.

The Aleutians East Borough would go on to purchase a $9 million hovercraft using a $37.5 million earmark from the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). While the vessel successfully evacuated dozens of medical patients out of King Cove from 2007 to 2010, local officials said it was too costly -- it lost about $1 million annually, they said -- and it reportedly could not operate in waves above 6 feet or winds above 30 miles per hour, which was about 30 percent of the time.

The borough later moved the craft west to Akutan, where it ferried mail and seafood workers to a new airport on Akun Island about 6 miles away. But it was still running on a roughly $1 million annual subsidy and was shut down in mid-February to be replaced with a helicopter.

The borough now plans to sell it, according to the Alaska Dispatch.

It marks the end of what was, at best, a failed government investment and, according to critics, a squandered opportunity to improve public safety in King Cove.

"That's really bad for the American taxpayer," said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs at the National Wildlife Refuge Association, which opposes a road through the refuge. "We as a nation cannot afford to throw money down the drain. Where did it get us? I don't know."

Also unclear is whether the rest of the government's $37.5 million investment in 1998 will see returns. The borough used most of it to build a 17-mile road from King Cove northwest to the edge of the Izembek refuge. The plan was for the hovercraft to depart from a new terminal there that would allow a shorter trip to the Cold Bay airport, avoiding the most tumultuous part of the bay.

But by the time the road was built, the hovercraft had already left. The borough hopes the route can eventually connect to a road through the refuge, but without Interior Secretary Sally Jewell's assent, it has little utility. King Cove is essentially right back where it was in 1998.


"I certainly wouldn't say that these 'improvements' made life a lot safer in King Cove," said Laura Tanis, a spokeswoman for the borough.

Meanwhile, political tensions have broiled in Washington, D.C., after Jewell last December rejected the one-lane gravel road through the refuge and an associated offer by the state and Alaska Natives to transfer 56,000 acres of their lands to the federal government.

Jewell, backed by environmentalists, said the road would fragment a crucial wetland and tarnish wilderness. She claimed King Cove has other "viable" options to access Cold Bay's airport, such as planes, a ferry or landing craft (E&ENews PM, Dec. 23, 2013).

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said those alternatives are a mirage. She's been steadfast in calling on Jewell to back the road.

"I am unwilling to simply get over it," Murkowski told Jewell during a Senate hearing late last month. "I am also unwilling to allow your department to do nothing to help the Alaskans it has promised to assist, who at this point have only been further imperiled."

Murkowski has promised to be a thorn in Jewell's side. That's a liability for Jewell's department, as Murkowski is the top ranking Republican on the committees that oversee most of Interior's programs and budget.

In the coming week, the borough and King Cove plan to submit a report to Jewell that they say will prove a road is the only technically and financially viable solution. But the controversy is unlikely to end anytime soon. Road critics and Jewell continue to believe there's a better way.

A "viable" transportation alternative is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. Environmentalists say transportation in King Cove could be made a lot better without a road, but Murkowski's camp said the road is too simple a solution to ignore.

"We have scores of remote villages in Alaska that face transportation challenges," said Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon. "The difference with King Cove is it is separated by 11 miles of refuge from the second biggest airport in the state."

Short of a road, here are some of the other alternatives that have been tried or proposed:


The Aleutians East Borough, the county-level government whose boundaries include King Cove and Cold Bay, had reason to believe the hovercraft would work.

A 2001 report by Seattle-based Glosten Associates Inc., a marine consultant, said a hovercraft would operate at least 90 percent of the time. It would cost about $870,000 annually to operate, with between $402,000 and $693,000 in annual ticket revenues, according to a 2003 environmental impact study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The borough settled on buying the Suna-X, a 93-foot-long vessel that could carry upward of 50 passengers, an ambulance, and other vehicles and cargo. It could run on water, ice and beaches, and could withstand waves up to 6 feet.

In times of inclement weather, the borough was even authorized to run the hovercraft along the beach following the southern border of the Izembek refuge.

"This is the perfect application for a hovercraft," John McGrath, a retiree of the Canadian Coast Guard who managed the hovercraft for AEB in King Cove, told WorkBoat magazine in 2006.

Designed by British firm Hoverwork Ltd., the Suna-X was only the second hovercraft to be built by Seattle-based Kvichak Marine Industries, and the first commercial hovercraft to regularly carry passengers, McGrath said.

But it never panned out, said the borough's Tanis. It didn't work at least 30 percent of the time and wasn't reliable in harsh weather, and "it was also too expensive for the borough to maintain and operate," she said.

Road critics say that there's no evidence the hovercraft ever failed to perform a medical evacuation and that it was abandoned mainly due to cost.

"That thing saved lives," said Sorenson-Groves, of the refuge association, which counts at least 30 successful evacuations. "Let's talk about ways to fund it."

Moreover, the hovercraft only operated out of King Cove's Lenard Harbor, which is about a 14-mile ride across the middle of Cold Bay, instead of from the new northeast terminal, as originally intended. The northeast terminal was near the border of the refuge, "out of the fetch and swirl winds within Cold Bay," according to the Army Corps, and was 6 six miles from the Cold Bay airport.

But by the time a road was built to the site, the hovercraft was gone.

Keith Whittemore, president of Kvichak Marine Industries, which built the hovercraft and operated it in Akutan, declined to discuss the craft's seaworthiness, saying such questions are best referred to the borough, the hovercraft's owner.

Aluminum landing craft

Jewell rejected the road, in part, because the borough in a 2012 letter to the Army Corps had said it was also exploring the use of an aluminum landing craft that it felt "holds promise" to perform better than a hovercraft and at a lower cost.

The Aleutians East Borough had authorized at least $15,000 to design the vessel and was somewhat familiar with how it would operate in storm-prone Cold Bay (Greenwire, Feb. 27, 2013). The 59-foot vessel would use the same northeast terminal that was being built for the hovercraft.

Similar to a hovercraft, the flat-bottomed landing craft would be able to glide up to a beach, open a retractable ramp, and allow passengers and vehicles to disembark.

"We don't believe it could ever be the answer, but we were willing to at least say it's a possibility," Gary Hennigh, city manager of King Cove, told Greenwire last year.

But AEB and King Cove insist the landing craft, while cheaper, would be just as unreliable as the hovercraft.

That view was endorsed last month by Glosten Associates, which said in a letter to the borough that such landing craft could be battered by Cold Bay's waves and would be a poor choice to ferry sick passengers (Greenwire, April 10).

Landing craft have delivered people to wave-prone beaches such as during D-Day in World War II, but at "considerable peril to vessel integrity," said the letter by Glosten, a contractor of AEB's.

Landing craft can be built heavier and with a deeper draft to withstand waves, but then they often must stop far short of the beach, Glosten said. "It may be appropriate to recall images of infantry wading ashore from their landing craft on D-Day."

While the borough could invest in dock improvements such as breakwaters to quell the waves, "the concerns regarding poor seakeeping performance in transit would remain," Glosten wrote.


According to a 1999 Glosten study, a ferry showed promise as a means of transporting passengers from King Cove's Lenard Harbor to the Cold Bay dock, though it would require costly improvements to both shores.

The study explored a "concept design" based on an Arctic research vessel developed for the National Science Foundation that was known for its superior ice-breaking and seakeeping capabilities. It, too, would allow an ambulance and other vehicles to drive onto and off of it.

"The proposed ferry would be capable of operating in all hindcast wave conditions without exception," Glosten wrote. "Thus the proposed ferry has a weather operability of 100%."

The price tag, however, would not be cheap.

Glosten estimated the ferry would cost between $4.2 million and $5 million and that the shoreside improvements would run up to $11.5 million -- in 1999 dollars -- the firm said. It would cost about $1 million to operate, though that presumably would be partly offset through ticket revenues.

The capital cost is similar to that of the proposed road, which Fish and Wildlife Service a few years back estimated at $22 million. A road would cost $670,000 annually to maintain, FWS said.

Sorenson-Groves said Alaska's ferry system has been providing a reliable mode of transportation for decades, and the Wilderness Society in a fact sheet suggested a ferry "would solve King Cove's health and safety transportation concerns and be in the public interest."

But Dillon, the Murkowski spokesman, said the shoreside improvements -- dredging and a breakwater -- could be prohibitively expensive and would come with their own environmental damage.

Airplanes and the Coast Guard

King Cove's airport is really little more than a 3,500-foot gravel air strip. It's closed during the night and is subject to fierce crosswinds that make travel by fixed-wing aircraft a constant challenge.

Since 1980, 11 people have been killed in airplane crashes taking off or landing into King Cove. All but one of those deaths occurred in two plane crashes in 1980 and 1981, according to state statistics (Greenwire, Feb. 27, 2013).

Nearly half of the $37.5 million Congress appropriated in 1998 was supposed to go toward upgrading King Cove's runway to accommodate jets that could make nonstop flights to Anchorage. But Alaska's Department of Transportation said a jet-capable airport was not feasible, and that money was redirected to pay for the road to the northeast terminal.

In the face of those challenges, some environmental groups have suggested the Coast Guard maintain a longer presence in Cold Bay to provide helicopter rescues when poor weather grounds fixed-wing aircraft and when boat travel is unavailable. The Coast Guard has already performed five medical evacuations this year, even though land-based rescues are not part of its core mission.

The Coast Guard currently operates its Cold Bay forward operating location in October and November during the red king crab season and from mid-January to late March for opilio crab season, it said.

"Given the success of the Coast Guard in providing emergency medical response for the King Cove fleet, for example, does [Murkowski] support providing the Coast Guard the resources to create a base of operations in Cold Bay to help better serve the Aleutian Islands?" asked Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow for the Center for American Progress and former Interior official during the Obama administration's first term.

Lee-Ashley pointed to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp's 2011 testimony to Congress that it is "vital" for the agency to invest in upgrades to its Cold Bay location to enhance its Bering Sea and Arctic response capabilities.

"Even when our crews are not seasonally deployed here, numerous helicopter missions stop in Cold Bay to refuel as they fly missions out along the Aleutian Chain and into the Bering Sea," he said.

But Murkowski's camp said every rescue in King Cove threatens the lives of Coast Guard personnel and costs as much as $210,000, depending on where they originate. The Coast Guard has provided no official estimate.

Murkowski said it's not worth the risk when a road would be much safer.

"We all appreciate the brave work of the men and women of the Coast Guard, but it is not realistic, appropriate or fair to expect them to solve this problem," Murkowski said. "It is unconscionable to consider putting even more lives at risk and then claim that it is somehow a solution."

Moreover, the cost of establishing a year-round air station in Cold Bay would be enormous, according to a Coast Guard estimate submitted to Murkowski earlier this month (E&E Daily, April 3).

For example, it estimated in 1987 that a permanent air station in Cold Bay would likely cost $55 million, which amounts to more than $110 million in today's dollars.

A permanent air base would also require the purchase of up to two new MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters for $52.2 million, bringing the total tab to more than $160 million. It would also cost about $11.4 million annually to operate the aircraft, the agency said.

It would cost much less -- about half a million dollars -- for the Coast Guard to maintain personnel at its Cold Bay location. But the agency said that it can only maintain one forward operating location at a time, meaning services in the Arctic in Barrow and Kotzebue, and the Aviation Support Facility in Cordova, would be sacrificed.

"Even at a permanent air station, core mission operations have priority over non-maritime medical transport," the agency said.

With no easy options available, the fight and its political fallout promise to rage on over the months and years to come.

Twitter: @philipataylor | Email:

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