Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Friday that residents of an isolated Aleutian community should "get over" their pursuit of a road that would provide access to lifesaving healthcare, according to a state lawmaker.
On Friday, House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt said Jewell was answering questions from state lawmakers gathered in Washington for a National Council of State Legislatures event when she commented that Alaskans should just "get over it."
Pruitt, an Anchorage Republican, said that Jewell spoke of "a lot of big issues in Alaska, such as (National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska) and offshore drilling," he said. "She wishes Alaskans would just get over this, she implied that this issue was very small."
A Saturday statement from the Interior Department, however, disputes the claim and calls Pruitt "factually wrong."
In response to a question from Pruitt, the statement notes Jewell's "desire to continue to work with the Alaska's elected officials on the vast range of issues that are important to the state."
"She did not and would not tell anyone to 'get over it,'" a spokesperson wrote in the statement.
At stake is an 11-mile gravel road that would cut through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to connect King Cove and Cold Bay, something the federal government formally blocked in a 2013 decision.
King Cove residents currently have no way to quickly reach the all-weather airport in Cold Bay, meaning sick and injured residents often have no access to emergency care.
Over the years people have died because they could not endure a long boat ride to the airport, according to community members. Many residents of the community have told stories of braving rough seas and losing loved ones in August when she visited, but the department has stuck by its decision.
The issue has grown contentious enough that it prompted a lawsuit against the Department of Interior by the State of Alaska.
“I’m basically appalled,” said Della Trumble, spokesperson for the Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove. "I am, however, not surprised. She has come across, in my opinion, as very cold and callous."
The comment comes a few months after Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy, another member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet, joked that a gift of moose meat from a young Alaskan girl could "gag a maggot.
"I'm confident in what I heard her say," Pruitt said Saturday. "But what I think is important is, what I don't want to get into a war of words with the secretary, what Alaskans and Americans need to understand most is the attitude and the callous response to the residents of King Cove in her answer to my question."
Editor's note: A version of this story which inaccurately attributed parts of an Interior Department statement directly to Sally Jewell has been corrected.
Channel 2's Austin Baird contributed information to this story.