Sen. Lisa Murkowski talks aviation, climate change during Bethel visit

Lisa Murkowski says supporting rural aviation is key for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. On a visit to Bethel Oct. 26, 2018, she laid out how she’s trying to support it at the federal level. (Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK).

Murkowski visited Quinhagak as part of her trip. It’s one of 56 villages in the region and sits on the coast near Kuskokwim Bay.

Like many YK Delta communities, Quinhagak is experiencing erosion from rising sea level and melting permafrost and is struggling to maintain its gravel airstrip.

“[I] had an opportunity to look at the impacts of erosion and some of the issues that they are dealing with whether it is their airport, whether it is their sewer lagoon but just the impacts to infrastructure that will be necessary to review,” Murkowski said.

The Yup’ik community is also the site of a massive archaeological dig. Quinhagak is trying to save its heritage — thousands of artifacts from the Bow and Arrow Wars of the 1600s —from washing into the sea.

Murkowski says she is focused on tackling rural aviation and climate change in her role as Senator. For rural aviation, she says Congress just passed legislation that would prioritize airport construction in “cold weather” locations.

“We just don’t have enough time during the summer season, and the airports are being used all day in, day out,” Murkowski said.

The legislation makes sure safety equipment arrives more quickly at rural airports and allows Alaska cargo planes to deliver fully charged lithium ion batteries

“These are often used in things like pacemakers, well, if you can’t get these fully charged batteries out to the region on an airplane, how do folks get the necessary medical equipment?” Murkowski asked. “So that’s a very specific Alaska exemption.”

Maintaining a rural airstrip also means battling melting permafrost, which can cause dips in the runway. And some villages in the YK Delta like Quinhagak and Newtok face erosion, another big infrastructure problem. And that’s expensive to fix.

If Congress were to define climate change as an emergency under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that would make it easier for communities like Newtok and Quinhagak who are facing relocation and major infrastructure problems because of erosion linked to climate change to get federal funding to replace buildings or move.

But Murkowski doesn’t think that’s a good idea.

“When you think about climate change and the impacts that we are seeing, it’s not a hurricane that has come up within a few days. These are slow-moving disasters,” Murkowski said. “But our reality is, in my view, that FEMA is not necessarily the best entity for addressing the potential disaster that you can see coming.”

She says FEMA is an agency focused on responding to disasters, not trying to prevent or mitigate it.

She thinks it makes more sense for an agency like the Army Corps of Engineers to take preventative measures to contend with climate change. But is that possible with the current when the Trump administration is trying to roll back major environmental regulations that would cut down on greenhouse gas emissions?

“If what we’re talking about is a wholesale kind of overhaul of a department that would allow for prevention, adaptation, mitigation, strategy from the agency, focused specific to climate change — in the two years of the Trump administration…I don’t see that happening,” Murkowski said.

But she says the solution could happen with a little different phrasing.

“If you’re an administration that says ‘well, we want to be smart with taxpayer dollars,’ you work on infrastructure and technologies that will, for instance, be more enduring when you’re looking at how you build out an airstrip,” Murkowski said. “For many in this current administration, it’s how we talk about getting to the same goal, which I think is important.”

Murkowksi says that there are plans underway in agencies to help build more resilient infrastructure that will withstand the impacts of climate change, from more hurricanes to rising sea levels to melting permafrost.

Editor’s note: Some of Murkowski’s quotes have been updated to correct minor transcription errors.

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