Days after the Exxon Valdez slimed 1,200 miles of Alaska’s coastline, I was in Prince William Sound, launching an investigation for the Chugach Natives of Alaska. It was their coastline.
The true cause of the Exxon Valdez catastrophe was the oil giant’s breaking their promises to the Natives and Congress, cynically and disastrously, in the fifteen years leading up to the spill.
The full extent of the oil company’s culpability, and the subsequent coverup, is chronicled in “My Home is Now a Strange Place” — Chapter 7 of my book, Vultures’ Picnic, excerpted here…
Alaska, Before the Beginning
Raven, that lying little bastard, came to Chenega Island, where the people slept and slept because there was only darkness. From His kayak, Raven gave them a box filled with Daylight, and in return, He demanded and they gave Him a wife, Qaleratalik, “Weasel in a Summer Dress.” He fed Qaleratalik only moss from His beak, which she could not eat.
One day, when Raven was hungry, He told His grandchildren, “I have captured a huge seal just around the point.” And when His grandchildren left their fire to look, Raven ate all their food. They returned, and Raven, laughing, asked them if they found the seal although He knew that there was no seal. And so, His grandchildren died of disappointment.
Uncounted millennia later, Russians arrived on Chenega Island. They told Chief Axuna about an Old Deceiver, Satan, who lives on this Earth; and Axuna, whose name meant “Cowardly Otter Anus,” was christened and re-named Makarichemovitsky, which means “Little Bird.” Then they took Little Bird’s furs and whale oil.
The Orthodox priests in dark caftans christened another family, naming them Totemoff after the fancy sticks they worshipped, which the Russians burnt. Then, on Nuciiq Island, the priests baptized their cousins Kvasnikoff (“Whiskey- children”), kidnapped them, and abandoned them on the isolated end of an impenetrable glacier surrounded by the Gulf of Alaska. If the Whiskey-children didn’t die, Russia would gain a supply depot and whaling station conveniently located at the entrance to Prince William Sound.
Axuna already knew all about the Old Deceiver; and Axuna knew Raven, the lying bastard, wasn’t what he pretended to be, that Raven used charcoal and sorcery to appear handsomely black. For a thousand years, the Chugachmiut warned each generation that underneath, Raven is white, ugly like ice.
Mudqnò. That is all. There is no more.
In 1867, Abraham Lincoln’s nasty little Secretary of State William Seward bought Alaska from the Imperial Czar for two and a half cents an acre. Of course, the Czar never actually owned it. Our young, troubled nation and Lincoln’s successor, who despised Seward and especially his “polar bear garden,” were happy to forget about Chenega village and the Chugachmiut Natives until Good Friday, 1964, two days too late to warn them . . .
CHENEGA VILLAGE, PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND
Natives of Chenega tell the story of how the ice peaks of Montague Island jumped twice a man’s height and just minutes later crashed back down.
Good Friday, March 27, 1964. At 5:36 p.m., seismologists’ machines worldwide recorded a monster shake, 9.2 on the Richter scale, shimmying down Alaska’s coast. Tsunami waves big as battleships were sure to follow. Warnings went out to coastal towns from Anchorage down to Malibu. But no message was sent to the shortwave at the Chugach Native village of Chenega in Prince William Sound near the quake’s epicenter.
Seal hunter Nicholas Kompkoff, Chenega’s chief, saw the ocean simply disappear in front of his stilt house. He knew right away the water had been sucked into a wave beyond the horizon and it would return with a vengeance.
Kompkoff shepherded his four daughters up the gravel slope toward the church on the high ground, pushing them to run as fast as possible on little legs. But not fast enough. Just as the wave hit, Nicholas reached out, grabbed the two girls closest to him and ran with one under each arm. His two other daughters were seized by the water and dragged out into the frozen Sound. One came back. Days later, Nicholas found her body stuck in the high branches of a pine tree.
Satellite telemetry indicates the Natives had way underestimated the mountain’s leap. The snow peaks of Montague Island rose thirty-three feet, then fell, sending a wave measuring eightynine feet seven inches over Chenega village.
Nicholas’s younger brother, Don, told me he was lifted by the wave but managed to grab the cross at the top of the church steeple, holding on to his life there, the only verifiable instance in which Jesus saved.
Two days after the quake, a postal plane flew over to drop the village’s mail out its window but could not find Chenega — because it wasn’t there. Of the dozens of stilt homes, every one of them was swept away — with a third of the residents still in them or fleeing. The pilot, Jimmy Firth, on a hunch and a second flyover, spotted a few wrecked pieces of the blue church roof.
Nicholas and those of his people who survived were boarded onto a rescue boat, divided up, and dumped in Anchorage, on Tatitlek Island, and at the Eyak village in Cordova.
Over the next few years, Nicholas became both a drunk and an Orthodox priest. In 1968, Father Nicholas put a gun under his chin and pulled the trigger. The bullet shattered his jaw but missed his brain. The church’s embarrassed bishops defrocked him.
Still, each and every year on Good Friday, Nicholas and a few die-hard Chenegans would make the chilly pilgrimage by boat to the old village, to gather washed-up bones, leave one cross on the beach, and repeat an increasingly pathetic vow to return to the Sound and rebuild their homes.
Do miracles happen? I like to think so.
In March 1969, a helicopter descended from the heavens over Cordova, and a man from Humble Oil came looking for Father Nick with an offer to solve Chenega’s problems. The biggest problem of all was that Raven had given Chenegans the sun and moon but failed to give them a signed deed for the real estate. No one in the village had a piece of paper saying, “We own this.” Until they could get that piece of paper, Chenegans could not return.
The Humble man would fix that, using the powers of his company in Washington to get them the title to their island homeland. The company with the gentle name of Humble was the Alaskan subsidiary of something far less humble, Standard Oil Company, which would rename itself Exxon Corporation three years later.
“Mr. Humble” wanted only one thing in return from Nicholas: for him to sell Humble and its partners the old Chugach village of Valdez.
Valdez is a sacred place for the oil industry. The shaky geology of Alaska (“tsunamigenic subducting continental plates”) made Valdez the only spot on the whole of the state’s 44,000-mile-long coast that could handle a mammoth oil tanker port. Therefore, the Valdez property was worth, say, a couple of billion or so.
How much would the oil giants pay the Natives for Valdez? They offered Father Nicholas one dollar.
Let us pause and pretend this is the happy ending. No sense jumping ahead to the tragic conclusion just yet.
That night, at four minutes past midnight, the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled more than eleven million gallons of oil. The black wave soon engulfed the old village, then the new one, and then its fishing grounds, blinding and burning every seal in their rookery, smothering all shellfish, killing a million birds, slathering contaminants across one thousand miles of waterfront, and leaving New Chenega isolated in a poisoned sea. The three thousand years of Chugachmiut life subsisting off the Sound’s waters had come to its end.
Mudqnò. That is all. There is no more.
Named Book of the Year on BBC Newsnight Review, you can get a signed copy of Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores with a tax deductible donation to support our work.
Vultures’ Picnic charts the course of Palast’s quest to bring the truth of the BP disaster to light as he and his team of journalist-detectives go from the streets of Baku, where Palast searches for a brown valise full of millions, to a small Eskimo village, where he hears firsthand of the depth of deceit and heartbreaking environmental devastation, to a burnt-out nuclear reactor in Japan, to Chevron’s operations in the Amazon jungle.
Along the way, Palast and his team see the many other crimes perpetrated by the energy giants of the worlds, the banks that fund their lies, and the governments that turn a blind eye.
WORLD TRADE CENTER, NEW YORK
Until March 24, 1989, the morning of the spill, no one cared if a Chugach Native dropped dead, which they did, often and young.
But, beginning four minutes past midnight, these Natives, for the lucky lawyers who caught one, became a summer house in the Hamptons, a Mercedes with all the trimmings, Rod Stewart singing you “Happy Birthday,” a younger mistress, and a new trophy wife.
One Chugach was worth—I don’t want to exaggerate—maybe a fifth of their weight in golden legal fees. Each Native was redeemable, like coupons, for all these things, Rod Stewart included, if only you could get yourself a Chugach.
The silver-haired attorney Melvin Belli was accosted by a fellow passenger on the first flight from San Francisco to Anchorage. “I see, Mr. Belli, you are chasing ambulances again.” Belli replied, “Madame, I get there before the ambulance.”
This would be a legal turkey shoot for plaintiffs’ lawyers. Within days of the tanker grounding, Exxon said it would pay for all the damage. The Exxon man said so on TV. Exxon would do, “whatever it takes to keep you whole.”
No risk, then: Get yourself a Native, sue, and take your slice. Quick, easy, lucrative. On the other side of the table, oil company lawyers did not just dream of Mercedes. They ordered them the day the tanker grounded: From four minutes after midnight, they began billing a Malibu beach house a week—and they would get it, win or lose.
Hill, Betts and Nash is one of those quiet white-shoe firms that provide discreet representation for Her Majesty and the Lloyd’s list on matters of Admiralty Law. They made certain Britannia ruled the waves, including handling the last little mess BP made in the Torrey Canyon crack-up. These gentlemen would not rush off to Prince William Sound to grab themselves an Indian. But Hill, Betts could count on the Native-napping lawyers to call on them to actually handle matters of the law of the sea.
Lawyers need facts (now and again) on which to argue the case and calculate the damages and thereby their fees. So when I saw Exxon’s tanker on the front page that morning, I figured I’d get a call. As a detective, I specialized in the work most sober people would find numbingly dull, requiring the creation (or destruction) of proprietary computer algorithms, but mostly, deep dives into tens of thousands of pages of corporate documents and account books, decades old and covered with dust and bullshit. It was worth millions, even billions, to my clients, and in return, they paid for my bagels.
I took the message, ran downstairs, jumped the box (I only paid going in, not out), and cabbed it to World Trade Tower One, where Hill, Betts commandeered the entire fifty-second floor. I walked past the stares at reception (I dressed like a slob), down a discreet, carpeted hall lined with models of clippers, steamers, cruise liners, and the portraits of the mustachioed founders of the firm, to the office of the Senior Partner. It always knocked me out: the view of the Statue of Liberty when I worked there into the night and, when I bothered to look down, the pretty lights of the jam-up on the West Side Highway.
“You’ll love this one, Palast. It’s got everything for you: a big bad oil company, trees and birds covered in oil — and poor little Indians.” Greg O’Neill enjoyed making fun of bleeding-heart liberals like me.
At the reception desk, I had picked up an envelope with a Delta ticket to Anchorage.
“Palast” — O’Neill grinned some more — “I’m telling you: This will be your Vietnam.” Well, at least the ticket was first class.
The Natives hoped to ward off the return of the Tanker of Death, the vessel of the Deceiver, the Raven, the one who had killed his grandchildren with broken promises.
You can call it goofy, you can call it superstitious. But the U.S. Congress did not find the Natives’ demand to bar the Devil Ship as insane as you might find it. In 1990, Congress voted the ban into law. But then, insanity has never deterred Congress.
Ultimately, Exxon did patch up the supertanker, rechristening it with a name suggested by thoughtful PR consultants: VLCC SeaRiver Mediterranean. But the Natives weren’t fooled. They were wise enough to demand the ship’s banishment from Alaska no matter what name Exxon painted on its bow.
By winning passage of the “Tanker of Death” law, the Natives had succeeded in keeping the cursed Exxon Valdez/SeaRiver away from Alaska. The problem is that the Natives’ satanic blackbird god is a trickster, never wearing the same mask twice. “Careful,” my late Eyak friend Laughing Eagle told me, “Satan is a beautiful woman, the most beautiful woman.” The Devil never appears in the form you are expecting.
In May 1996, after the ban on the devil ship went into effect, Exxon’s Mobil unit launched a new tanker for the Alaska run. I called the company, but no one could tell me why they named the new tanker the VLCC Raven.
The oil giant ran double-page ads in papers across America trumpeting the vessel they cutely called “two of the safest ships ever built,” meaning that there was one tanker inside another, a “double-hull” ship. If the outer hull collides with a reef, the oil remains safely inside the second, inner hull. It would have prevented “most of history’s collision-caused spills,” the ads told us.
The oil company’s big ads were headlined, “QUOTH THE RAVEN: NEVERMORE” But then, that’s what Raven always says. Once again, we encounter V. S. Naipaul’s axiom about imperial chiefs: They don’t lie, they elide.
Here’s what the oily eliders left out:
In 1971, eighteen years before the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef, the Alaska State Legislature passed a very un-insane law requiring the use of double-hulled tankers on the Valdez oil route. But Chevron, Exxon and Mobil sued to block the double-hull law. They won. In other words, had the oil companies not killed the law, the Exxon Valdez would have had two hulls and the spill would never have occurred.
Mobil built its much-ballyhooed double-hull tanker in 1996 simply because the company had no choice. Double hulls were written into federal law right after the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Back in 1971, British Petroleum was still the baby sister of the oil giants. New on the scene, BP dutifully built three double-hull tankers to operate from Valdez in accordance with the Alaska law. But when their oil company siblings sued and won the right to go one-hull naked, BP spent several million dollars rerouting the ship’s pipes to fill in the safety gap between the two hulls. This marked the first time in history that an oil corporation made a major investment in deliberately making their ships less safe.
PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND, ALASKA, 1989
State Inspector Dan Lawn, grabbing a fast launch from Valdez, was the first to reach the shipwrecked tanker, risking the ride through the sickening fumes and fountains of crude that could explode with the touch of a match. In the tower, Captain Joseph Hazelwood, three sheets to the wind, greeted the Inspector. Everyone knew The Inspector. “Hell of a way to end a career, huh, Dan? What should I do?”
Inspector Lawn said, “Joe, I’d start by putting out that cigarette.”
The newspapers, TV stations, government, everyone bought the human error story. Exxon was culpable, but only because they let a known alky take the wheel.
I didn’t buy it. It was too easy, too perfect.
The smoking gun is just left there, right next to the body, oily fingerprints all over the place:
“DRUNK SKIPPER HITS REEF.”
We had the perp (Captain Hazelwood) and the weapon (the VLCC Exxon Valdez). Hazelwood was drunk and the drunk driver drove the ship onto the rocks just like your dumb cousin Louie who killed two six-packs and ran his pickup right through the garage door. Simple. Too simple.
And something else was suspicious. Exxon didn’t deny it. Exxon really seemed to like the story: Yep, we had a drunk at the wheel; he cracked up the boat; wasn’t our fault he was drunk but, boy, are we sorry; and we’ll pay for the mess he made. Case closed.
Why was the biggest corporation on the planet so ready to take the blame for its captain? Why were they so ready to say, “We did it—that is, our guy did it — and we’ll pay.”
Did Exxon have a heart? A soul? A sense of guilt and honor?
And was I just some cynical sonovabitch who only thinks the worst of the corporate animal?
Hazelwood was charged and found guilty of operating a boat while intoxicated (a conviction later overturned on a technicality). He paid a fine, lost his license, did penance in a soup kitchen. His employer was guilty of leaving a drunk driver in charge and paid a fine of nearly a billion dollars, no complaint. Why couldn’t I just drop it there?
Whether Exxon had a heart, I couldn’t say, not having had the pleasure of doing an autopsy. But I knew it had a scheme. And, in the shadows, another company on my own list of suspects, British Petroleum, had, I was sure, an even schemier scheme.
CORDOVA, PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND, 1989
Four plane changes in twenty hours got me to the Alaska Bar in Cordova. Not to drink — I myself wasn’t yet a drunk. (I hated alcohol except for cherry wine at Passover.) I started there because that’s where most things start in Alaska, in a tavern, whether shipwrecks or homewrecks.
At this bar across from the docks, I found Cliff Olsen, an Eyak Native, one of my clients, getting a light buzz on. A navigation map showing the tanker channel was nailed up near the end of the wooden counter. Cliff ran a finger down the map from Valdez to the sea. “Hell, I’ve taken boats through the Narrows stone drunk and never hit a damn reef.”
After leaving the bar, I called the World Trade Center and spoke with Gordon Arnott, a ship’s navigator turned lawyer. Many of the lawyers at the Admiralty firm had experience in the salt, and Arnott had steered tankers through the Sound. “That’s right,” he said. “We always left Valdez after some ‘pops.’ ”
And something else: Hazelwood wasn’t driving the Exxon Valdez drunk. Because he wasn’t driving. He was nowhere near the helm. He was passed out below-decks, snoozing off the boozing.
Now we’re cookin’.
OLD CHENEGA, KNIGHT ISLAND
Exxon and its industry partners paid Father Nicholas a dollar for the inestimably valuable Valdez. But Nick’s signature alone wasn’t enough. For the oil combine to lock down Valdez, Nicholas would have to divide his dollar with other Chugach village chiefs and get their signatures, too.
Their first target: Tatitlek’s chief, George Gordaoff . In 1989, I found him in his log bungalow in the Eyak Natives’ Old Village, located in deep forest, miles from Cordova. George, age showing, was on the couch, not well. His wife, Mary, who’d taken over as Chief, had kept the papers from those meetings with the oil men decades earlier. She got angrier and angrier as she unfolded each document and map.
In 1969, Gordaoff, then a commercial fisherman, knew any tanker leaving Valdez would have to steer clear of Bligh Reef, a hazard right off their village island. Gordaoff worried that if oil hit Bligh or nearby fisheries, it would be the end.
So when the oil company honchos came around for his signature, Gordaoff told them, before he’d take their dollar bill, they would have to agree to use the latest in radar, or forget it. The lawyers for Humble Oil told him to put his radar plan in writing. That must have given them a chuckle. They knew Gordaoff was illiterate.
But Mary encouraged him to dictate his detailed plans, including what he knew of Loran-C radar and radio tower placement. So the oil companies were stuck, and the demand for radar was typed into the deal for Valdez. That was Promise #1: radar.
Gordaoff also demanded escorts. He said there would be no deal unless the tankers had escort boats to guide them around the reef. The Natives knew it like the backs of their hands, so they offered to pilot the guide tugs. The oil companies added Promise #2: escorts with experienced pilots.
The company lawyers then ran off with the Natives’ signatures to a Democrat controlled Congress that was about to vote down the Pipeline. Congress favored an all-land route for North Slope oil, safer than tankers from Valdez but a heck of a lot more expensive to construct. But now that the Natives, the ancient stewards of the land, were A-OK with shipping oil—sprinkled with radar and stuff — who the hell is the Sierra Club to say it’s unsafe?
The oil companies who would own the Pipeline, a consortium including Exxon, ARCO, Shell, and Sohio (British Petroleum’s American cover), put the radar, equipment, and pilot promises into their congressional testimony and into pledges to the Department of the Interior. That gave the oil companies’ promises to the Natives the force of law. The oil company executives swore in their permit filing:
“Sophisticated navigation equipment and highly trained ship personnel should eliminate any probability of groundings in the Prince William Sound.”
On the night of March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez did indeed have the most sophisticated radar you could buy, the Raycas Fairways system, the first GPS. Today you could buy it for maybe two hundred bucks, but back then, it cost millions to install and required special training to operate. So Exxon had it turned off
Another seaman turned lawyer, Terry Gargan at Hill, Betts, figured that one out. The radar had been busted since the ship’s maiden voyage two years earlier. The company decided, hey, why blow money on a system the crew didn’t know how to use anyway. The “highly trained personnel” were clueless about working the Raycas system.
With radar equipment out of business, the ship was not legally fit to sail. Exxon knew it, but the ship sailed anyway. The oil industry did live up to its promise to sail the Sound escorted by an emergency pilot tug—twenty years after they made the promise, after the Exxon spill, and then, only under threat of legal sanctions.
A promise made by one oil corporation to another oil corporation is a contract. A promise made to a Native is a what? A treaty? A statement of goodwill you can wipe your ass with?
I knew what it was: a crime. The crime was racketeering. RICO: The federal crime named after Johnny Rico, the movieland mobster played by Edward G. Robinson, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. I had to convince a judge and jury, as well as our own lawyers, that Exxon and its partners were a mob equivalent to the Cosa Nostra, to the Mafia, against which the RICO law was aimed.
There is a difference of course. Unlike the Mafia, Exxon and partners had a huge advertising budget and a Texas oilman named Herbert Walker Bush in the White House.
But I had this: Exxon and its partners had suckered the Natives into giving away something valuable in return for a lie. That smelled an awful lot like “fraudulent inducement,” the first “predicate act” needed to bring a RICO case.
I had these scraps of paper from a Native woman in the woods. To charge the world’s biggest corporations as gangsters, I would need a whole lot more: It required reviewing thousands of pages of supporting documents we’d have to somehow uncover. And it would require my best and soberest years.
We also needed witnesses. I needed insiders who would spill to outsiders. To find them, I needed a hound dog. I needed a blonde.
I needed Lenora Stewart.
Lenora is a Southern belle, very blond, with a light, lilting accent and the gentility of an alligator with indigestion, the gnarliest PI you’d ever want to avoid. If I ask Lenora to hunt down a deer, she’ll come back with just a bloody leg, burping with satisfaction.
She grew up on the bad side of Steinhatchee, Florida (I’m not sure there was a good side), where drag races are still run on the hard beach sand.
I needed Lenora to put her lovely claws on and dig. Her new assignment would be to convince people to put their careers, reputations, and fortunes on the firing line.
But before heading to the far north, Lenora stopped in Washington State to meet with a man who could not chance setting foot in Alaska, Captain James Woodle, once Alyeska’s Marine Superintendent for the Port of Valdez.
Years before the Exxon Valdez crack-up, in no-BS memos, Captain Woodle warned the Alyeska chiefs that spill containment equipment was missing, busted, inadequate, a frightening joke. He was told to zip it. He didn’t.
Alyeska waited, and watched. Then, on an icy day in February 1984, he went into colleague Henrietta Fuller’s office to use the copy machine, and closed the door to keep out the cold. He was in her office “from 0820 to 0840,” someone noted with military precision. This information, including a notation that Fuller later borrowed the Captain’s sweater, went all the way up to George Nelson, BP’s President of the Alaska oil consortium. And the order came down: Alyeska could now fire Woodle without fear he’ll squawk.
The Captain’s immediate Alyeska supervisor waved the file at him: the absurd evidence of his twenty-minute “affair” and the threat that Woodle, a married man, could be smeared with it. The Captain wouldn’t back down: He insisted BP and Exxon were not prepared for an oil spill. The Captain was then relieved of his keys, his badge, fired for “insubordination,” and escorted from the docks.
Woodle told his wife of the phonied-up “affair” file. But Alyeska held another card: The Captain was told that unless he kept his memos from the eyes of public and regulators, he would lose severance benefits. Furthermore, the Captain would have to agree, in writing, to leave Valdez, where he’d been a City Councilman, forever. Under the threat of financial ruin, he signed.
But then, after the tanker hit, the Captain decided it was time to speak to us about the cover-ups and the threats.
So, crucial equipment was missing. That’s stupidity, carelessness, negligence. But knowing it and concealing it, that’s fraud, a second “predicate act” necessary to bring a case under the RICO racketeering law.
How do we know it was deliberate concealment? We talked to those ordered to do the concealing.
TANKER PORT, VALDEZ
There were lots of oils spills in Alaska waters before the Exxon Valdez cracked. Smaller, true, but it would have signaled the system had gone to hell. BP’s Alyeska’s water samples would have picked up the traces of spilled oil. Lenora found Erlene Blake, a technician in the Alyeska testing lab. Erlene told us that Alyeska kept a bucket of oil-free seawater in the lab. If they found evidence of hydrocarbon in the Sound’s waters, they were directed to dump it down the sink and refill the sample vials from the bucket of clean water. They called it the Miracle Barrel.
The Chugach agreement to sign away Valdez imposed a requirement on the companies:
“BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the several oil companies employ the latest chemical and other anti-pollution methods for protection of the fisheries, wild life and migratory birds at all times.”
The state rules required it anyway, so the oil men agreed. You want equipment? Hey, we got it! The key piece of equipment would be state-of-the-art “containment barges” loaded with the best and newest Vikoma Ocean Packs, miles of rubber to hold in the oil and skimmers to suck up the oil caught by the rubber corral.
In May 1977, as the first tankers left from Valdez, oil consortium honchos reassured worried State of Alaska environmental officials by promising two containment barges, one of them:
“. . . to be located near Bligh Island, which could double as a pilot station.”
With these containment and skimmer vessels at “strategic locations along the coasts,” they assured the state, they could pick up all but a fraction of the biggest spill. The BP-Alyeska plan was, I admit, pretty good-looking. On paper. But you can’t pick up much oil with a couple sheets of paper.
The Exxon Valdez crashed right there at Bligh.
Think about that. First off, if they’d put up the pilot station, there is no way on Earth that the tanker would have sailed right into it. Even a stone-drunk pilot would notice a supertanker bearing down on his kitchen. The ship would have been warned off. And if the equipment had been there, as I’ve told you, no one would remember the Exxon Valdez today. The rubber and the skimmer and suckers could have been set out in minutes, not days as happened. It would have been like a fire started across the street from a fire department.
So where were the wondrous containment vessels? One of them simplydidn’t exist. The other was out of business for repairs, locked up in dry dock at Valdez, its equipment stored away in warehouses or locked in ice (this is Alaska).
You could say that was dumb, the barges that weren’t there. But stupid is not fraud. Deliberate fibs are.
To nail the racketeering charges, I had Lenora hunt through the state files looking for something that wasn’t there, “the dog that didn’t bark.” She confirmed: there was no record of a Notification of Nonreadiness per rule 18 AAC 75.340 and 75.350.
We are supposed to hate all those nasty little regulations with strings of numbers and dots. But we have them because corporate powers can’t be trusted unless they are hog-tied in red tape. Unfortunately, the law assumes that oil companies are honest as nuns and would confess to not having working equipment and will voluntarily fill out a Notice of Nonreadiness and then shut down the entire pipeline system.
No tanker can move from Valdez if the containment vessels are out of business, “Nonreadiness.” That is just plain common sense — and it’s the law. But it’s also expensive. A typical VLCC is hauling $50 million in crude. Ten ships backed up means half a billion dollars just sitting on its ass and waiting. BP and the gang could not let that happen. So they lied. That is, they elided. They didn’t fill out the Nonreadiness form, and they let the Exxon Valdez sail.
Even when the ship was bleeding oil, Alyeska kept up the con. From the ship, Inspector Lawn radioed Alyeska, wanting to know when the heck the containment vessel would arrive. Alyeska’s Bill Shier radioed back, “It’s on its way, Dan. On its way.”
The truth was, it hadn’t left the dock. It finally showed up fourteen hours after the grounding. By that time, the slick was spread over a hundred square miles of water and was on the move. There wasn’t enough rubber boom in the world to corral it.
PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND, ALASKA
You can’t run supertankers through danger zones without a team of first responders ready to jump if stuff happens. It’s like a fire department for oil shipping. Congress demanded it, the regulators required it, and the oil companies promised it. Humble Exxon and ARCO, to sucker in the Natives out of their property, promised the Chugach all the response team jobs as the “good consideration” in the purchase contract for Valdez where the price is stated as, “One dollar and other good consideration.”
BP’s Alyeska came through on this promise. They trained the Natives to drop from helicopters, lay protective boom, run skimmers, and be ready to roll 24/7.
It wasn’t seal hunting, but it was money.
And then BP fired them all. After seven years, once the Natives helped the company break the Teamsters Union, the Natives were dumped, and for more than a decade the full-time spill response crews required by contract and law were manned by ghosts. Alyeska just grabbed some names off its payroll and dubbed them “oil spill response” crew. A few were given enough training and a minimum of equipment for “showtime”—inspections.
Covering up of the elimination of the Native emergency response crews was not easy. How do you make Natives simply disappear? How do you shut down the fire department without someone noticing? Someone did notice: Inspector Lawn. The man is fueled by suspicion, a walking accusation machine — and always correct. Always. Based on his detective’s sense of smell, the Inspector wrote a memo dated May 1, 1984, wondering if the BP consortium had secretly eliminated its “dedicated force” for spills. A surprise inspection was needed.
But Alyeska doesn’t like surprises. BP’s oil group insisted that it be given notice of the “surprise” reviews. On November 4, 1986, Alyeska informed the government:
“This is written to provide information to use in planning the unannounced spill drill. . . . November 19 would be the best day. . . .”
BP kindly suggested a couple other days and times when, with sufficient notice, they would allow a surprise inspection.
But Inspector Lawn, on his own, showed up unannounced for an unannounced inspection. BP, caught with its corporate pants down, screamed to its political friends in the government. Lawn was demoted, no longer an inspector, locked to a desk and hung out the window by his heels as a warning to other inspectors who dreamed of surprises.
A union complaint got Lawn’s badge back. But Alyeska wasn’t done with him. They tapped his phone. British Petroleum’s chief in the United States hired Wackenhut Corporation to listen in on The Inspector just doing his job. (I’d investigated these Wackenhut guys, now operating under the alias “Geo,” for negligent homicide, child rape, and espionage.* Nice guys.) They were trying to get something on The Inspector to stop him from talking to Congress. They got nothing. Brutal doesn’t mean competent. And luckily, they were incompetent enough to get caught. I don’t think BP minded that: The word went forth that these Brits didn’t hold their teacups with their pinkies in the air.
Another state inspector wrote a memo moaning that “I would like to see an unannounced spill drill scheduled for, say, ten “.#. January 2.”
But he didn’t dare, lest he got BP’s Inspector Lawn treatment.
On the night the Exxon Valdez hit their reef, the oil spill response team at Gary Kompkoff’s village, stripped of their jobs, authority, and equipment, just watched hemorrhaging crude flow by, helpless.
Now I was up to four frauds committed upon the Natives, not to mention the con job on regulators:
- PROMISE #1: State-of-the-art radar. Missing, and non-operation concealed.
- PROMISE #2: Oil spill equipment. Missing, and absence concealed.
- PROMISE #3: Spill containment barges. Not operating, not loaded, condition concealed.
- PROMISE #4: Work on the spill response teams. The jobs were terminated, and danger concealed.
So, in giving up Valdez, the Natives, as my dad would say, were “screwed, blued, and tattooed.” So were Congress, the regulators, and the public.
However, screwing the public is not a crime. But racketeering is. For racketeering charges to stick, I needed a conspiracy.
Let me stop here and talk about conspiracies. “Conspiracy” has gotten a bad rap of late. When I’m on American TV, I can assume I’ll be called “a conspiracy nut.” It always gets a laugh — from the conspirators.
I’m not a conspiracy nut but a conspiracy expert. “Conspiracy” as I’d describe it in a courtroom is nothing more than an agreement between two or more parties, acting in secret, acting in concert, who know their scheme is going to hurt someone.
To file a RICO claim, I’d need a conspiracy. With these guys, it was like picking one chocolate from a big candy heart.
This one would do. . . .
August 1988. Seven months before the spill.
The Boys are having a meeting, doors closed. The chieftains of British Petroleum, Exxon, Mobil, ARCO, Hess, Unocal, and Phillips Petroleum have gathered to discuss their pipeline.
As far as the oilmen in the room were concerned, Theo Polasek, that pain in the ass, and their other Valdez managers, had gone up to Alaska and “gone native,” bitching and moaning for equipment in case of a tanker grounding. Did they think the Alyeska consortium is made out of money? (It is, but that’s a detail.)
In the old days when competing corporate big shots met, it was called an illegal cartel, market fixing, monopoly:
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
That’s Adam Smith, another conspiracy nut. But no one asked his opinion. Adam Smith burned whale oil, so what the hell did he know about getting crude out from under the caribou?
Anyway, it wasn’t a cartel, it was a “consortium,” a perfectly legal entity. And it had a really smiley-face name: Al-YES!-ka.
The Alyeska Boys (and they are always boys) owned the pipeline together, but the leader was the new kid on the petroleum block, British Petroleum. The pipeline, the shipping lanes, and the containment and clean-up of a spill fell to BP. The British had the biggest slice, so Alyeska was their baby and it was their job, BP-Alyeska’s alone, to make sure of two things: no explosions, no spills.
There were explosions and there were spills. That should have provided several lessons for their future operations in the Gulf of Mexico. But what was the lesson?
BP was in charge but it couldn’t spend a dime without an OK from a majority of the consortium members, and that meant taking coins from the tight pockets of the Exxon Texans. To them, BP’s fool of a manager in Valdez wanted to spend millions and millions on an oil spill that had not happened.
The Port Superintendent, Theo Polasek, complained to them that, with the meager bit of equipment he had in Alaska, containing a spill “at the midpoint of the Prince William Sound is not possible” in case a tanker grounded there. The companies promised twice, in writing, to the state, that they would put out the equipment at Bligh Island. But it wasn’t there. Not having it there meant jacking the regulators.
So what happened? When BP suggested spending at least a couple of shekels to make good on the consortium’s written commitment, a nod to the line drawn by the law, the Exxon rep spat. His company didn’t intend to give good Yankee dollars to some pussies from England to blow on protecting seals and avoiding icebergs.
ARCO’s chief, Stanley Factor, wrote to a BP Senior Vice President that he better not spend a dime until ARCO and Exxon said he could — and that was that. No equipment for Bligh Island.
In fact, if an Exxon tanker bumped an iceberg, Exxon would take care of it itself, so no one had to worry. That was stone cold against the law — and for good reason. You don’t want each oil company with their own little untested, seat-of-the-pants response system.
Seven months later, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, Exxon dramatically took charge of the emergency. Exxon’s seat-of-their-pants spill response didn’t even have the pants: no equipment, no plan. While watching the Exxon oil hit the fan, BP-Alyeska was more than happy to slink away from its responsibility.
So, there I had Fraud #5: Concealed pass-off of the spill plan — and a count of conspiracy to boot.
Bless them. A paleontologist glues together bones to make a dinosaur. Likewise, I have to tape each piece of paper into a psycho-dramatic map of a conspiracy.
In my investigation of the nuclear industry, one exec routinely asked his secretary to shred incriminating files. She did so, and routinely made a copy of each to keep in a file marked “Shredded Documents.”
Dumb, eh? Or not. Before you add this to the sexist blonde jokes in your head, think for a moment: What kind of salary does an executive secretary earn who can at any moment whip out a file called “shredded”?
Hail to the photocopier! The Small People’s weapon of choice.
(And light a candle in thanks for cc’s on e-mail.)
PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND
March 1989. Inspector Lawn, sleepless, yet methodical and calm, confronted the oil slick, now as wide, unrelenting, and merciless as the Russian front. BP, by law in charge of the response, didn’t lift a finger; but their boobacious executives chattered away, jamming up the emergency radio channel, and chiming in with a brilliant suggestion: Can we send over a wave of bombers to drop tons of chemical dispersant, bombing a pathway through the oil slick so BP tankers can resume their business?
I didn’t have to ask Inspector Lawn his response.
At trial, I would have to give the jury a number, my calculation of “hedonistic” damages. How much is it worth to be a Native, to hold fast as the last Americans to live on what they could hunt and catch and gather? And then — ka-BAM! — you lose it. What’s that worth?
NEW CHENEGA, EVANS ISLAND
I couldn’t easily keep my eyes off the half-dozen slash marks cutting a parallel pattern across Larry Evanoff’s torso. He’d invited me to join him in his sweat lodge. I was killing time waiting for Chuck, the Chenega Corporation President, who was out somewhere doing his breakfast doobie, to show up at the busted-up trailer that constituted the Corporate Headquarters.
Not everyone in these villages is thrilled to have an outsider arrive with a notebook and questions — how would you feel about someone with a clipboard measuring the value of your life? — so when the pontoon plane dropped me off, I took it slow.
Larry was only alive because of the cruelty of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was snatched away from home and sent to the Lower 48 to Indian school. They didn’t teach much, but that was not their purpose. They were created to knock the Native out of their students. A word in a Native language was punished with a whack. Seal-hunting skills could not be easily passed on in Texas or Seattle or wherever the hell they were sent. Students had no sight of home or family for years. That would interfere with the task of melting Indians into the great American melting pot.
But the BIA’s Kampf Amerikana saved Larry from the ’64 tsunami; or, at least, it saved him from watching the wave grab his parents, grandparents, and little sister. The Evanoffs were gone, except for Larry.
Some time after Father Nicholas had tried to kill himself, Larry told the Father he was going back to Chenega even though there was no Chenega to go back to.
Larry had tried America. After the Service, he got a city job as an air traffic controller. Then Pappy Reagan fired every air traffic controller who joined in a strike over their insane working conditions. Reagan had been in the service too and, like Larry, flew combat missions. But Reagan could not remember that his flights were only on movie sets. Nevertheless, Americans loved Reagan because a fake warrior with a happy grin beats the hell out of a scarred-up Indian who doesn’t smile when the camera’s light goes on.
For Larry, that was it for the American Dream. Evanoff took off for his island in a barge, loaded with a generator and some power tools. In the dead middle of absolutely nowhere, he put together a house and then brought in his wife and two kids, ages eight and ten. The sub-Arctic winter closed in. There was no way out, no way in, no shortwave radio, and nothing but the meat he’d put up to skin and smoke, deer he shot standing at his front door, and seal taken from the rookery across the Sound at Montague Island. And salmon that wiggled right up to the cabin.
I couldn’t imagine doing that. My own island. A life without a Whole Foods Market, without 7-Elevens with cop cars in front, without the friends we promise to get together with, without Disney World and parking tickets and meetings with publishers. How could I ever give that up?
After a couple of winters, the Chenega diaspora joined Larry. It was 1984. They put together about two dozen bungalows and a church with a steeple for Nicholas, whom they still called Father.
What about those stripes, Larry? Some kind of Native ritual scarification? “Yeah,” Larry said. “The sacred Vietnam Ritual.” He told me he got the stripes riding a helicopter when a burst of small-arms fire came close enough to sear his skin.
Larry had called it quits on the America of union-busting Presidents and their habit of stuffing the powerless into helicopters to be shot at. He had escaped to return to the Pleistocene life, isolated from the alien madness. Then, in 1989, Exxon crashed America right into his house: camera crews, oil company executives, and Vice President Dan Quayle standing on a plank of wood so his tasseled loafers wouldn’t get smeared. Not to mention an overzealous gumshoe from New York.
The leading edge of the oil moved south and it had to go somewhere. Since BP had failed to provide that rubber containment boom, something had to capture and hold the fast-swimming oil. That would be Chenega. Exxon designated Chenega’s fisheries, clam beds and rookeries as “sacrifice” zones. Of course, it wasn’t Exxon that would make the sacrifice.
The seal rookery was a death zone now. There was still a lot of salmon, in your choice of leaded or unleaded. Clams were declared deadly poisonous by the State. Chenega lived on food drops now, flown in by Exxon. Refugees in their own homes.
Father Nicholas’s church, once the tallest structure on the island, was soon topped by a mountain of cans and crates and other garbage. Larry hadn’t thought of building a dump on the island because, before the spill, he never had to take plastic wrap off his lunch.
Until March 24, 1989, you could say that Larry, in his office of forest and ocean, was God’s employee. Now, once again, Larry was fired. That left him the only job oil offered. He was back in uniform: spending his workdays zipped into a head-to-toe yellow-orange Hazmat suit, wiping Exxon’s crud off the rocks on his beaches. He was back on the clock.
Eight years after the spill, Gail and Larry invited me again to stay with them in their cabin. In the morning, I boated out with him and other islanders, to watch them pressure-blast the rancid oil still left at Sleepy Bay. To look at their spattered outfits after an hour, you’d think they’d hit a gusher.
Paul looked out his window at the water. What are you thinking about, Uncle Paul? “I think about their bones.”
At the Old Chenega, Naked Island, junk captured by the tsunami, pots and pans and toys, would wash up on the beach. And so would the bones. Maybe they were his parents. Naked Island was also “sacrificed” and now the bones were soaked in crude oil. Chenegans complained and Exxon’s chief kindly agreed to order clean-up crews to stop picking up bone “souvenirs.”
Then the Exxon circus came to town. With camera crews at Exxon’s call, the company CEO, Lee Raymond, showed up at Chenega to show his concern for the victims of that drunk-driving reprobate Hazelwood.
Uncle Paul told me, “I feel hungry all the time. They bring me your store food. I eat it. But I still feel hungry.” He also told that to Mr. Exxon who, abracadabra, ordered a crate-load of seal meat for Chenega. It came in cans marked NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION. Zoo food.
Years later, when I met up with Chenega Corporation’s president in Anchorage, I asked him if, like other Natives, he received “subsistence” food only Natives may legally capture, such as seal meat.
Chuck gave me a look. “Seal meat? You ever smell that shit? Give me a Big Mac anytime.”
Well, de gustabis non est disputandum.
“They flew in frozen pizza, satellite dishes, Hondas. Guys who were on sobriety drinking all night, beating up their wives. I mean, all that money. Man, people just went berserk.”
Sally Ash Kvasnikoff, Chief Vince’s sister, told me, “This place went wild. They gave us rags and buckets, at sixteen-something an hour to wipe off rocks, to babysit our own children.”
The village of three dozen Native families at the end of the Kenai Fjord Glacier had survived on the sea and forest since the Russians marooned them there a century earlier. Now they survived on the Exxon payroll.
But it took two weeks before the party started. Nanwalek heard reports of the leading edge of the oil slick approaching and Exxon didn’t do squat, despite the village’s pleading. Sally’s uncle Mack Kvasnikoff was chaining logs across the salmon-spawning rivers. His boots filled with gravel and tore away the skin.
It was Nanwalek’s turn for a visit from the Exxon circus with the cash and the promises. Exxon even agreed to fly Mack to a hospital in Anchorage — but not until he signed a waiver promising he wouldn’t sue Exxon. (BP took good notes about that waiver game, which BP would use in the Gulf of Mexico.) Mack’s foot was amputated.
Then, after a couple of months, the industry’s clean-up circus folded its tent. They left Nanwalek with dead salmon, a bankrupt cannery, and their food, Badarki snails and razor clams, designated off-limits for the next decade. Chief Kvasnikoff lost his fishing boat; five of the island’s eight commercial boats were repossessed.
I didn’t get there until 1991, two years after the spill. Some of the guys were sitting inside, watching an endlessly repeating Elvis in Blue Hawaii.
The Exxon clean-up left some of the villagers with a drug habit — and ten cases of HIV/AIDS, which took one child. For Sally, that was it. “I felt like my skin was peeling off. After the oil, I thought, This is it. We’re over, Sugestun, we’re gone unless something happens.”
Something did happen. Sugestun, “Real People,” is their tribe’s traditional name. And in that Sugestun language — which only the women knew and passed on — Sally and the other women led an uprising against her brother, Chief Vince, and voted him out.
That’s when the Cultural Revolution began: No alcohol, no junk food (Vince’s little commissary was closed), and even the halibut in the smoke houses would be dried by electric fans, not smoke and molasses. (For me, that was a step too far.) When Uncle Mack flew home from a doctor visit, as soon as the four-seater landed on the beach, they threw his behind in jail for bringing in a six-pack. Not everyone supported the Revolution. Sally’s Sugestun name, Aqniaqnaq, means “Leading Star,” but not everyone thought she should lead. (The women tagged me with a Sugestun name meaning Calendar Boy; they’d say it and giggle.) Anyway, guns were oiled and loaded, and Leading Star found it prudent to stay away from the Christmas Masking Ceremony. I stayed close to neutral territory, playing the drum set in the dance hall.
Nanwalek rocked. Their band was famous all over the Sound. Their big hit was “World Upside Down.” It began, Chief Vince said, when a guitar washed up on the beach, and by morning, he was playing “You Ain’t Nuthin’ But a Hound Dog.” (Chenegan Don Kompkoff verified that you could learn any instrument in a day by turning your clothes inside out, hinting that a dark Raven-like spirit would help.)
Back in Chenega, Uncle Paul’s silences grew longer as he watched the villagers go off the rails. I went along with him and his wife, Minnie, up a slope to the edge of a snow line, where we picked gallons of blueberries. He looked over at the little village a hundred miles from nowhere and said, “I think I have to find someplace else to live. It’s just too crowded.”
He was silent again. Then he added, “My home is now a strange place.”
TATITLEK VILLAGE, BLIGH ISLAND
Gary Kompkoff, Chief and President of Tatitlek’s village council, said he’d meet me at the airfield, the island’s softball diamond. The Natives had cleared some rocks so I could land. Gary told me to look for his red truck. That was easy: It was the only vehicle on the entire island.
This was just after his warning to me about the village going crazy with the oil and oil money, and years before his daughter’s murder.
Gary didn’t say hello. He didn’t say anything. That was OK: The Chugach tend not to speak unless they have to. Even then, they may not speak. Gary directed me with a nod into the truck cab and threw my bags on the pickup’s back bed, next to a huge compressor motor.
He drove across the infield down to the end of the village’s one road, about two hundred yards, killed the engine, and nodded for me to get out. The entire journey took ninety seconds. He parked next to the village cemetery in front of a trailer, where I could cook and sleep while I worked in the village. I got out of the cab into icy quiet, only the sound of his front tire hissing. I thanked Gary for the ride and added, “I think you got yourself a flat.”
Gary didn’t say anything and he didn’t look at the tire. Instead, he jumped onto the back of the truck, fired up the compressor, uncoiled a ratty air hose, jumped down, and filled up the tire. The compressor howled and quaked and it looked like it might shake right off the truck and crush him flat.
I stared at Gary and he stared at me. Then he cut the compressor and spoke. “You don’t want to talk to Bear.”
I tried to contain my inner New York. I grinned and chewed on my tongue. Then I said, “Gary, I have just traveled seven thousand miles over three days to come to this very remote island. I have to speak to an Elder. I intend to speak to Mr. Gregorieff and I would appreciate you telling me where I can find him.”
Gary said nothing. He nodded toward an old mobile home between some rusted-out boats and broken engines near an unused dock. It looked abandoned.
He waited, then added, “So, are you staying?”
I said nothing. He threw down the bags, then hauled them into the “guest” trailer and drove the truck back across the ball field. I headed off through the weeds, holding a cantaloupe.
Ed Bear Gregorieff did not have a phone. He had no idea I was coming, but at the door, he greeted me like he had been waiting for my arrival. “Cha-mai!” Aluutiq for “welcome.”
I maneuvered through the dark trailer home, with its damp, old carpeting and aluminum walls patched with duct tape. I walked through a tight maze of makeshift shelves jammed with large, dusty no-label cans, motor parts, dishes, and trophies. He’d placed the stuffed shelves to cover over the windows that faced his neighbors’ stilt bungalows up the slope.
I put the cantaloupe on Bear’s formica table. He saw me scan the cluttered shelves and old wedding photos in cheap metal frames. There were several of a bride.
“She’s passed,” he said. He popped open a couple of nonalcoholic beers.
Bear was in his seventies. It looked as if he’d let his white beard go unshaven for a week and that he’d been wearing his Joe Cool T-shirt just as long.
He didn’t know who I was or why I had come, but he could guess. A white man would only come to talk about the Exxon tanker and its oil. I opened a notebook.
“Bear, I need to know what happened when the oil hit. You know, how things changed.”
“I warned them,” he said. “I told them, ‘We’re fishermen. We’re no oilmen.’”
He had drifted back to the sale of Valdez. I tried to steer him back to the spill. “Ed, I need to know what happened that night.”
He said, “This is what happened:
“There was a man once. A Native man. A fisherman, you know, a ‘net seiner.’ A subsistence man. He loved this woman. Then the woman’s husband died. So then he married her. Then this Native man, he went away to the war. And when the war ended, he came back to the village and back to his home. And his son stayed up in his room. And he didn’t see his son all day, the day he came back from the war. And then it got dark and his wife made supper. And his son came out of his room and his son was all dolled up. And his son didn’t say anything; he just headed for the door. And the Native man said, ‘Where are you going? I just got home and your mother’s fixed us supper.’
“And this man’s son looked right at him and said, ‘Dad, while you were out at the war, I got a Alyeska job and I made twice as much money as you made in your entire life.’
“And he went right out the door.”
Bear looked through the filthy window at the rusted boats. He looked at the warning light turning around on the tower over the reef.
“Where’s your son now?”
“Seattle,” he said. “Pipeline engineer.”
I left the cantaloupe on the kitchen table, closed the door softly, walked up through the weeds to the guest trailer, removed my bags, still packed, and called in a seaplane on the shortwave.
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA
There are many ways for a corporation to say Go fuck yourself.
The Chugach of Prince William Sound pooled their money, borrowed some, and with good old American can-do spirit, set up a cannery for the salmon they caught.
The Exxon Valdez crack-up was not the best advertising for their canned salmon. Diners of the Lower 48 lost their appetite for “crude in a can.” Plus, there was the cost of the lawsuit — the confabs with lawyers, the experts (and the investigator from New York). Exxon folded its arms and watched the Chugach Corporation go belly-up with the salmon.
The Sound had been the world’s herring supplier; no one had more of it. A year after the spill — shaZAMM — the herring disappeared. From millions to zero.
BP looked down on the tragedy they caused and saw a cheap exit. With the Native-owned businesses up and down the coast going under, BP offered them a lifeline: the insurance fund.
BP and Exxon had a cute game going. Exxon would hold out, and the victims of the spill, looking into the chasm of bankruptcy would have no choice but to settle for peanuts from the BP consortium. BP offered the Natives, fishermen, oiled towns, and all the injured the amount already sitting in an industry insurance fund, $125 million. Even Exxon admitted that the damage would be in the billions.
My Native clients had a choice: Take it or die. It was the one-dollar deal all over again, but with a few zeros added on. A few added zeros were not enough to prevent the Chugach Alaska Corporation from sinking into bankruptcy court. (There went that investigator’s bill.)
In other words, BP didn’t pay a penny out of its own pocket.
Once BP was off the hook for free, the company’s Alaska Chief, Bob Malone, was sent to run BP operations in the Gulf of Mexico
Here was Lesson #1 for BP to take to the Gulf:
If your lost oil destroys an economy, back up the truck and finish the job.
The devastation so weakened the company’s victims, they had to take anything.
And there was Lesson #2:
It’s a heck of a lot cheaper to pay off the victims than to prevent oil spills.
A by-the-book oil spill response operation requires over a billion dollars in equipment for Alaska, way more in the Gulf with ten times the traffic and drilling.
We can sum up Lessons #1 and #2 as DP-DP: Don’t Prevent, Don’t Pay. BP not only got away with it, they took this lesson to the Gulf.
All Uncle Paul wanted was a commercial fishing boat sturdy enough to carry him and his son beyond the oiled death zone. They were not very excited about their career opportunities in rock wiping. He asked me if I thought Chenega and the other Native villages could get enough funding for boats and licenses to get back into the business of being Native.
I knew not all the lawyers liked that idea (what’s 20 percent of a herring?). When he asked me to go straight to the Exxon chiefs, I said that we’d get in trouble.
Uncle Paul said, “We’re already in trouble.” So I went to San Diego to confront The Man With The Checkbook.
Chuck, as Chenega’s Corporation President, joined me on the four-seat float plane, along with Larry’s wife, Gail. She was just brilliant with the technicalities of the case, and more important, it was her life on the line.
We were on a mission to San Diego, where we could track down Otto Harrison, the General Manager of Exxon USA, hosting a symposium on oil spills. On the last leg out of Seattle, Chuck’s seat was empty. We pretended not to notice and flew on.
After three days’ wait, Harrison agreed to meet, just in time for Chuck to show up. He called from the airport, the travel budget gone and therefore no cash for a cab. We retrieved him and headed for a cheap motel next to the San Diego Freeway, where Exxon’s man had rented a conference room for our meeting.
Otto Harrison is a dead ringer for General Norman Schwartzkopf, who led U.S. troops in Gulf War I: the bearish frame, even the military buzz-cut hairdo above bulldog jowls. Harrison placed himself dead center between fifteen empty chairs on his side of the table, framed by heavy green curtains that blocked out the California sun. He faced us alone, without the usual scrimmage line of lawyers, PR operatives, and whispering consultants that other corporate chiefs typically employed as human shields in negotiations.
I handed Harrison one sheet of paper, the carefully honed list of repairs and economic aid needed to keep the five stricken villages alive. Enough for a boat for Paul and the other uncles in the Sound. Otto smiled again. He turned the paper over, facedown on the conference table, without looking at it. He smiled once more. “So, Gail, you have something to say?”
Before we left the village, Gail was an angry lion, announcing she would “tell that Otto Harrison. . . .” We had come to demand the cash, and right this minute! But now, a small Eskimo woman sat next to me, with a voice nearly inaudible. She asked only for sixty extra days of pay for the Chenegans to clean the oil out of their fishing grounds on Latouche Island.
Otto deliberately thickened his Texas drawl. “Now, Gail, ah cayn’t be payin’ a bunch o’ Natives to go ’round picking up oil that ain’t there, can I?”
I launched in, unasked. I cajoled, I wheedled, I told the Exxon chief I could “see it from your point of view,” I threatened to put Paul Kompkoff on TV with a dead oil-covered eagle. Otto let me run on until I was winded.
“Are you done? Son, have you said everything you’d like to say?” Otto turned over my sheet, glanced, smiled, stood up, and handed it back to me. “Ah don’t think I’ll be needin’ this.”
Through the entire meeting, Chuck said not one word. Not hello, not good-bye. In a chair in the corner of the room, he gripped a pen and wrote nothing. You could see the hangover hammering at his temples. In his huge round head, through eyes closed down to sleepy slits, he watched Gail and me break up on the hard reef of Otto Harrison. Chuck knew it was a fool’s errand, and, I surmised, he thought it best that we be the fools.
At the door, Harrison threw down a bone. “Well, Gail, ah think we can come up with thirty days’ work for your people.”
She took it. There is justice and there is survival, and Gail, more experienced in this world than me, understood the difference.
DISNEY WORLD, FLORIDA
In the meantime, Native leader Kathryn Anderson decided it was time to “put on the feathers.” Maybe shame mixed with good PR would tame the Exxon tiger. She led a retinue of Alaska Natives to the corporation’s annual stockholder meeting in Orlando.
At the Exxon Disney World meeting, Kathryn brought The Mask of Tears. It was a turquoise face carved on wood, garnished with eagle feathers, with tears made from something shiny I couldn’t make out.
With support of sympathetic nuns who held Exxon stock (don’t ask), Kathryn confronted Exxon’s board with the mask. “We bring out our traditional Mask of Tears every time our people are endangered. He is crying for our ancient way of life. You must help us.”
The executives pretended to be moved.
The Mask of Tears may have been a Chugach tradition, but it was one that had started only a few months before its Disney World appearance. It had been created by a Cordova artist inspired by ideas from some visiting professor from Seattle.
KAKTOVIK 2010; THE OLD VILLAGE 1969
While I was hanging in Kaktovik, I asked Etok about BP and Exxon maneuvering the Chugach of the Sound into selling Port Valdez for one dollar.
“Oh yeah,” said Etok, “the One-Dollar Warriors. The Ahtna, too. The oil companies got them for a dollar, the cowardly assholes. They sold out for nothing; corrupt bullshit, they should all be in prison with the Americans and the British.”
The young rebel from Harvard scolded them, “I told them to get a lawyer that wasn’t controlled, wasn’t in the pockets of oil, and you can’t get one in Alaska.” Etok himself had flown down to Seattle, where he retained his two Jews: first, former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg (my second cousin, really), and later, Goldberg’s would-be replacement on the Court, Abe Fortis, personal counsel to the President of the United States.
Etok had zero sympathy for Father Nicholas and the One-Dollar Warriors. What could I have said to Etok to change his opinion?
Maybe this: No Chugach had come back to the land of ice because they’d grown tired of San Francisco and university life. The Chenega refugees and the other Chugach did not have a pot to piss in. When “Humble” Oil showed up, their Native Association had exactly $129 in the bank. I saw the old records. So, how were these Natives who spoke Aluutiq better than they spoke English supposed to get to Seattle? By kayak? They couldn’t afford a used chicken sandwich, let alone airfare.
And besides, they were given legal help for free. A big-shot politician from Anchorage, Clifford Groh Sr., offered to bargain for them against the oil companies. How the hell were the Chugach to know he was about to become a highly paid lawyer for these same corporations?
I met Groh Sr. in 1997. In Alaska, apparent conflicts of interest are considered just smart business. In his Anchorage office hung a huge baleen, a sperm whale’s “tongue,” mounted on his wall. I assumed it was because it would not be appropriate to display the skin of a Chugach.
Today, it’s not easy to imagine back four decades to the stilt house where, as dawn approached, the august Eyak elder, Cecil Barnes, told Father Nick, Henry Makarka (“Little Bird”) of the Eyak Village and the Kvasnikoffs of Nanwalek to surrender. They must hand over Valdez for whatever they could get, mostly jobs clearing garbage from the port site.
Why did the Natives take the deal from the oil companies, the jive from Groh? Did they believe it? To develop my fraud theory, I dropped in on Agnes Nichols, Eyak Chief-for-Life, who had, as a young woman with stenographer’s skills, kept notes of the Natives’ deliberations. The cabin was a museum of Native and Indian artifacts she had gathered in her travels, including a porcelain sculpture of Pocahontas with a lampshade sticking out of her. The matriarch produced her verbatim notes of Barnes’s words:
“Have you been down to the mouth of Ship Creek in the summer? How many salmon were on the drying racks? Try the Cordova area, the Eyak village, Alganik. They moved it lock, stock, and barrel to make way for the railroad. Where’s Alganik now? Gone. Where are the Eyak? We’re almost extinct. How many of us live to forty? How many of you have electricity? If we go to work for the canneries, our people are virtual indentured servants.”
If they didn’t hand over Valdez, it would be taken from them — and maybe the other villages seized and cleared as well.
“This has been our home as long any of us can remember. We must stay here until we die.”
It was not lost on Barnes and the Natives that Exxon’s logo is a man-eating tiger.
Surrender or be swallowed. The Natives’ last hope would be a plea to the Secretary of the Interior, whose department runs the Bureau of Indian Affairs and whose job it is to protect Native interests. There was no sense bothering. Richard Nixon had just taken office and installed a new Interior Secretary: Wally Hickel.
PENTHOUSE, CAPTAIN COOK HOTEL, ANCHORAGE, 1997
Governor Wally Hickel invented the State of Alaska. With his buddy Richard Nixon’s help, in 1959, he won his star on the flag, statehood.
“That was a mistake,” he told me. “We should have been our own nation.” I pointed out that would make him President.
Hickel grinned and took me over to a globe. As he massaged and caressed the planet’s crown, he told me of his plan to create a circumpolar resource cartel linking Siberia, Alaska, sub-polar Scandinavia, and northern Japan. He had already begun the engineering work on a railroad that would wind around the North Pole, connected by a tunnel under the Bering Straits to Russia. A Confederation of the North, an Arctic Empire, that circled the top of the planet benevolently ruled, he made clear, by Emperor Wally. Mad, yes, but all of Hickel’s plans were nuts, and usually successful.
When I met with him in 1997, he had already prodded the Governor of Sakhalin Island, Alaska’s twin in population and minerals, to declare its independence from Russia. (That didn’t last.)
Hickel, elected Governor of Alaska twice, with two decades between his terms, was one strange Republican. “Capitalism,” he told me, “is an artifact of the temperate zone; it just doesn’t work for most of the planet.” For a man averse to capital and private property, he sure had a lot of both.
He had a heck of a view from the top of the Captain Cook Hotel. He owned it. The view was kept clear because the Captain Cook, by law, must remain the tallest structure in Anchorage. You could see almost all of Anchorage — he owned most of that too — and beyond to the Kenai Peninsula, more Hickel holdings.
That wasn’t enough. He was already the richest man in Alaska and that, too, wasn’t enough.
Since Alaska attained statehood in 1959, he knew his Arctic dreams began with oil, gas, coal, and lumber. But extracting and shipping those resources required removing a large obstacle: the Natives who already owned it.
But where was their signed deed? “You can only claim land by conquest or purchase. Just because your granddaddy chased a moose across some tundra doesn’t mean you own it.”
So much for the claims of my reindeer-chasing Native clients.
But Native claims were a most powerful weapon in the hands of a most powerful governor. Hickel had worked himself into the White House as Nixon’s Secretary of the Interior charged with protecting the nation’s natural resources and environment. God help us.
He had a hell of an idea: With a wave of a legislative wand, he turned Alaska’s Native tribes into Corporations. The chiefs would become CEOs and Presidents; the Council of Elders would become boards of directors; and each Native would become a shareholder in the corporation that would own the land.
Lots of land. Hickel told me he convinced Nixon to hand the Native corporations 100 million acres. Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. Natives could pick any land they wanted — except for Valdez. Valdez was for the BP group.
There was one other notable clause: the Natives could sell their shares after ten years. But who would buy up millions of acres of wilderness?
“I made them [Chenega] an offer for that property myself; but I wouldn’t pay them anything like what they are getting from Exxon.”
On Chenega, when I was staying at the Evanoffs, Gail told me, “They set us up to fail, to take it away. They gave it to us so they could steal it.”
Hickel may have coveted Chenega, but Exxon had jumped his claim stake. The day I met Hickel in his penthouse office, Exxon sealed the deal with Chenega’s Chuck Totemoff to buy up 90 percent of the Native corporation’s land.
They couldn’t call it a “sale” because Hickel’s successor as Secretary of the Interior erased Hickel’s cute little codicil in the Claims Settlement Act that allowed non-Natives (named Hickel) to buy and sell Native corporation stock. Instead, the land’s development rights were put in an Exxon “Trust.” (The Exxon Trust would protect this lovely land. Exxon, BP, and Shell Oil also said they would protect the Arctic Wildlife Refuge — by drilling into it for oil and gas.)
I flew to Chenega, and Evanoff picked me up at the airport — a real honest to-god airport with a runway that could land a C-17 cargo jet. On previous visits, I could only get there by sea plane. Now there was a satellite communications dish, a power plant for the sodium lights, and a huge docking facility for big ships in case of another spill, all of it paid for by the Exxon compensation fund. In other words, Exxon installed all the infrastructure needed for drilling for oil, using the funds for oil spill containment.
Would Exxon drill? The offshore oil lease sales are creeping closer, now near Nanwalek and heading north toward Chenega and Cordova. They’ve already got the airport; they’ve got the docks.
Larry was just back from directing the hose-and-rag operation at Sleepy Bay, still heavily oiled. It was eight years after the spill. The day before, cleanup work had stopped for the funeral of eighteen-year-old Frankie Gursky, who had killed himself at the airport after an argument with his grandmother.
I asked Larry about the land sale, and Gail jumped in, murder in her eyes. “This is not real estate.”
Larry spoke to me later, quietly. “I don’t think you can own land. All we can do is use it for a little while. That’s all we ever did, my family. We just pass through for a while and the land remains here.”
The Chief of the traditional council, Ed Kompkoff, was less philosophical. “Who the hell gave Chuck the right to put a For Sale sign on my back?”
But, then, who is the Chief? He’s just a tenant on corporate property. Most of Chenega’s shareholders have moved away: oil pollution, oil jobs, and the lit-up lure of the cities. Some who still live there in the village, like gill netter John Totemoff, Chuck’s uncle, don’t own a share. Lucky they let him stay at all.
That’s the point of a corporation. It’s not the Park Service. Chenega was just real estate to sell, and with a million bucks for each shareholder, you can buy one hell of a double-wide in Tempe, Arizona (the largest center of the Chugach diaspora), where icy water won’t touch your feet until you drop a beer bucket on the patio. In fact, it will be the Chenega stockholders in Arizona who will demand that BP and Exxon drill there. Cash money beats Grandpa’s story of a seal on a spit every time.
The Eyak Corporation went bankrupt, then had no choice but to sell. Exxon’s gold ultimately lured Nanwalek and the rest of the village corporations to sell to the “Trust.” Wally Hickel’s vision was complete.
ANCHORAGE, ALASKA, 1991
I still had yet to measure the value of their way of life so they could sue Exxon and BP for its loss.
How do you measure the value of your kids never learning how to hunt a seal; how do you measure the despair that leads to alcoholism, and the sudden end of a three-thousand-year-old way of life?
The answer is: with a computer. I had developed a monstrously elaborate software algorithm, perfected for me by professors at the Wharton School of Economics, that could measure what we call in the econ biz “hedonic value.” I can tell you with surprising and horrible accuracy the number of suicides to expect, wife beatings and early deaths caused by oil spills, defense plant closings and anti-Muslim riots. We like to say that not everything has a price. We like to say it because it’s not true.
When the mayor of the fishing village of Cordova took his own life, leaving a note blaming Exxon, folks were shocked. I wasn’t. There would be thirtyfive more.
I admit, some hedonic damage defeated my abilities at quantification. I asked the lead guitarist of Nanwalek’s village rock band, with the Susgestun nickname of Kwadl’k, or Stinking Anus, if he’d felt any changes in emotion since the spill. In a slow, thoughtful Native cadence he said, “Well, until we got in that satellite TV, we didn’t know our women were ugly.”
All Alaskans have the right to lead subsistence lifestyles, not just Alaska Natives. . . . Neither the length of time in which Alaska Natives have practiced a subsistence lifestyle nor the manner in which it is practiced makes the Alaska Native lifestyle unique. . . . Quite simply, the choice to “engage in [subsistence] activities” is a lifestyle choice. . . . The lifestyle choice was made before the spill and was not caused by the spill.
Just a “lifestyle” choice, like Yves Saint Laurent shoes over Gucci. There was some consolation, however. In the Old Village, Agnes Nichols, the Eyak Chief-for-Life, told me, “At least those goddamn otters are dead.”
Moose was pissed off. Moose Hendricks is Chief of the Eyak, the tribe that lived just outside the commercial fishing port of Cordova, just south of Valdez. “Where the hell can you buy property like that for one hundred dollars an acre?”
But, Moose, I tell him, the land had oil on it. It still has oil on it, twenty years on.
At least admit that Exxon is brilliant: It slimes the property with oil, then buys it up cheap — because there’s oil on it.
When the salmon were poisoned and the herring fled, it just about finished Cordova. There are no roads in or out. The only game in town is fishing and that was kaput. Exxon blamed Mother Nature for killing the herring; the mayor blamed Exxon in his suicide note. The only secure job in town was in repossessing fishing boats. Moose’s was one of them.
As to the BP consortium buying Valdez for a buck, it wasn’t just the price that bugged him. “Who was Cecil Barnes to sign away Valdez?” Well, he signed for the Chugach because he made them up. The Natives had lived there for thousands of years, but tying them into a neat little bow marked “Chugach” was a Barnes invention. Moose thought it was BS, not tradition.
So how did these indigenous folks get piled together and tagged “Chugach”? The answer begins with another question, Qui bono? Who benefits?
The oil companies needed someone to take their dollar and sign on the dotted line. They had to give Valdez to Cecil Barnes’s crew so the oil companies could legally take it away from them. Moose notes that the deal involved only five villages. Where was Village #6, Valdez? Not one name from Valdez was on the document giving up their home. Of course not. They would never have given way to the oilmen, so the oilmen found those who were most weak and vulnerable, like Father Nicholas, desperate enough to accept nothing more than an offer of jobs, a bunch of jive about protecting the environment, and other shiny trinkets.
BP and the petroleum giants had played this same game before. In 1953, BP engineered the coup against the elected President of Iran, replacing him with a Shah ready to sign anything the company put in front of him. Later, they would play the same game in the Caspian to get their “Contract of the Century.”
If Barnes didn’t sign, the companies would find an Indian who would. Barnes took what he could get.
Etok walked me through the three steps on “How to Take Oil That Isn’t Yours.”
- 1. POWER: The expression of the conqueror’s strength or, more often, the weakness of the conquered.It’s not wild coincidence that Bob Malone, who headed BP’s Alaska and Gulf operations, was simultaneously co-chair of the George W. Bush reelection campaign.
- 2. CRIME: Making promises you don’t intend to keep is fraudulent inducement. Do it three times and it’s racketeering.
- 3. MYSTIFICATION: The web of rituals, usually legalistic — including treaties, land deeds, and laws — imposed by conquerors to legitimize their crime. In the fog of legalismo, the victims often acquiesce to the terms imposed.
In Prince William Sound, the oil companies picked out an alcoholic priest, some pragmatists, and some desperate poor folks, labeled them the “Chugach,” gave them a buck, took Valdez, and sealed the deal with the mystical authority of a “contract.”
Power, Crime, Mystification. We saw it in Baku. War, poverty, and dictatorship imposed the Contract of the Century. This treaty of economic surrender is masked as an agreement among equal parties. “Contract,” my ass.
Since the U.S. government screwed the Natives out of all this oil, why don’t we own it? How come it now belongs to BP, Shell, and Exxon? Teddy Roosevelt asked that exact same question about the Arctic reserves — Isn’t this the public’s oil? — and it cost him reelection to the presidency.
Governor Hickel of Alaska once told me that he had proposed state ownership of North Slope oil fields. Hickel backed down, rare for him, but prudent in the face of oil company power — and the slice they left for him. (They got the oil; Hickel’s company got the natural gas pipeline rights.)
But We the Sheeple of the United States have been three-stepped so successfully, we never even question why BP, Shell, and Exxon have our oil. If we had taken back our own oil as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia did, today we wouldn’t have to beg China for a cup of capital.
Another example? Here’s one. In Iraq, in 2003, before BP could sign new contracts for the giant Rumaila oil field near Basra, the old contracts signed by Saddam Hussein with the Russians had to be modified. They were, from the air, by B-52s.
Power, Crime, Mystification. Again and again.
In 1991, on the second anniversary of the Exxon Valdez tanker spill, I was in Paul Kompkoff’s house, watching TV. The oil was still all over his island beach, and America couldn’t care less. We were distracted: Everyone, even the patriarch, was glued to CNN. The U.S. Air Force was bombing the bejesus out of Bagdad. Uncle Paul rarely shared his thoughts, rarely speaks at all. But now, Uncle Paul, talked to the soldiers loading into Humvees in the Arabian desert, heading out toward Iraq’s oil fields, “I guess we’re all some kind of Native now.”
When the epidemic first struck, some of the children were sent away while their parents died. The kids were planted at the Eyak Village on the Copper River. One was Moose’s mom.
The Eyak village was miles from Cordova, the commercial fishing town. In 1948, quite ill, she walked to the hospital there. White people had to be served first. She was told to wait. She did, and died waiting, from a burst appendix.
Moose told me about his mother as he looked out the window of the tallest building in town from a top-floor office worthy of Hickel. A couple years back, Moose built the biggest, largest hospital within a hundred miles, the most expensive building in Cordova. Natives are served first.
Moose had taken the dollar from the sale of Valdez and jammed it right up the Company’s law firm. It was more than a decade after the spill. BP decided it politically wise to live up to the forty-year-old deal and hire the Eyak-owned companies to man the oil spill response operation. Chief and CEO Moose demanded millions and he got it. And, he told me, he’s going to get that herring boat back, too.
In 1991, Exxon did offer to settle all Native claims for peanuts, probably from the same bag as BP. It was an “eat it or die” situation once again. The commercial fishermen, which included many Natives, were tired of swallowing whatever the oilmen tossed their way. They chose to fight it out in court. They won. The jury awarded them over $5 billion.
Justice done. Chapter closed.
Not quite. They offered even more peanuts now, but with an admonition. As one Exxon lawyer put it to me, you can take a few measly bucks now or wait twenty years for a judgment from the court.
A scare tactic, a ridiculous exaggeration.
On June 26, 2008, twenty-one years after the spill, the Supreme Court issued its final judgment. In black robes, they looked like a coven of ravens.
Justice David Souter said that Exxon’s behavior was “profitless.” The court cut the judgment by 90 percent.
I didn’t know if that left enough for Uncle Paul to get his boat. It didn’t matter. By then, Paul was dead and so were one-third of the other plaintiffs.
Lesson #3 for BP:
Wait them out. Corporations are immortal, humans die.
FLOAT PLANE TO KNIGHT ISLAND, 2010
If you want to get a laugh at a BP or Exxon board meeting, just read them this, from their 1969 statement to the Department of the Interior to get the OK on the Pipeline:
“Most importantly, Alyeska believes that its Plan will have a positive effect on the unique environmental conditions of the Native communities.”
What will make an oilman laugh ’til he cries is not that the statement is Grade A bullshit, but that they used it again forty years later, in 2009, forty years after the original snow job. They used the same pacifying line to sell Congress and the President on deepwater drilling in the Gulf. This from Shell’s President, Martin Odum:
“We can operate as good stewards of the environment. We can drill safely and efficiently in ever greater water depths.”
I picked up a color brochure at an Exxon gas station in New York. Two years after the tanker crack-up.
In it, an eagle soars over the deep blue Sound, and Exxon declares, “The waters of Alaska are pristine once more.” All’s well, dear, go back to sleep.
I brought it with me to show Uncle Paul. He pointed to a mile-long smear of oil behind the eagle, the “bathtub ring” of crude that stuck on the high-tide point. But that’s a detail.
Now look at this photo.
Call it “Native Alaska Beach Party.” James McAlpine of BBC snapped it when we flew into Chenega. That was six years after the spill. The Chenega Natives, decked out in yellow hazmat suits, look like firemen from outer space, wielding high-pressure hoses and pulling up the crude from the Exxon Valdez. It’s six years after the spill, and you can see this black crap all over them, like they’d thrown grenades into an outhouse.
And here I am on Knight Island in 2010, two decades after the tanker spill. I just have to stick my hand in the gravel, and the place will suddenly smell like a Bronx gas station.
In June 2010, the U.S. Department of the Interior said the Deepwater Horizon spill will be cleaned up by the fall. In the fall they revised that to “two years.” What they meant was, it will take two years for you to forget all about it.
Remember the Tsunami of 2007 that killed a quarter million people? I don’t: That is, I had to Google the date. The massacre of over three-quarters of a million people in Rwanda in . . . what was it, 1996? 1998?
The poet Wordsworth said, “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” Exactly. In a couple of years, you’ll forget all about the Gulf Coast, and BP will run ads that Nature has taken care of it all. And in two years or five, you’ll chuck this book in your recycle bin or clean it out of your iPad’s hard drive.
And we repeat the story again. The levees of New Orleans collapsed in 1925, and the nation was repulsed and angry. Then we slept and forgot. The United States of Amnesia.
I look at my file cabinets of stuff and yellowing junk, like the Exxon booklet from the gas station, and I think, Why do I keep all this crap? I don’t have an answer.
In 1997, I met again with Chuck Totemoff at the Chenega corporate office. This wasn’t the busted trailer at the island’s dock. It was a modern office complex that could fit the entire village on just two of its floors.
And Chuck wasn’t Chuck. I met Charles Totemoff, President and CEO. A white shirt, subtle necktie, bespoke suit, with an MBA in business management and a computer flashing reports from his multi-continental subsidiaries. I caught up with him in the parking lot, getting out of his silver BMW. He was dead sober, which is more than I could say.
Exxon and BP shafted Chenega on its claims for the spill but, Charles explained, using the grubstake of the land sale, the Natives launched a corporation expanding faster than Microsoft. If the Petroleum Club worked Congress, so could he. Federal law gave Native-owned companies first crack at government service contracts. Charles understood that Native-owned didn’t have to mean Native-“manned.” Why not employ the white guys for a change? The renta-Native operations beat the heck out of casinos and cigarettes. Charles soon became the true commander of his operation with Chenega Corp signs from Iraq to Florida, whose thousands of employees probably couldn’t point to the village on a map.
The Corporation’s Web site home page is divided between a photo of Prince William Sound and an aircraft carrier sending off helicopter gunships, touting its “base support” and military intelligence operations. Wally Hickel would have been proud.
Is Chuck/Charles a sellout or a seer? Does he have to stay in the village gathering razor clams to be Native? With some Romanian blood in me, have I insulted my heritage because I don’t live in a gypsy wagon and carry a tambourine? Must Natives put on the feathers to fit into a museum’s display case?
GROWLER ISLAND, 1993
After the Judge wiped our Native claims, Exxon President Lee Raymond could now retire a happy man. And later he would, with a $400 million retirement bonus. What’s not to be happy about?
Not just the case. The whole shebang. Closed the door and hung up my investigator-for-hire gumshoes. After years of investigation, I had the information to blow Exxon and BP from hell to breakfast. I was paid to dig it up. Now I was paid to bury it.
Exxon, always holding out the carrot of a big fat settlement payoff, made it clear that if the Natives used the “F word,” fraud, they would take away the carrot. They did anyway.
And the Natives’ lawyers didn’t need my discoveries. Racketeering, fraud, and willful negligence are expensive, complex, difficult cases to bring. But that wasn’t the lawyers’ job, nor the Natives’.
It wasn’t their job to warn the planet about the industry’s systemic fraud, corruption, and penny-pinching la-di-da view of safety. It wasn’t the Natives’ role to tell the white folk that the oil industry will suck out your resources and leave you slimed and devastated.
Their job was to take the money and run and let the rest of the world go to hell. “DRUNK SKIPPER HITS REEF” worked for the jury, worked for the judge — and worked for Exxon. Human error. A one-time failure of a sad alcoholic.
A week after the Exxon tanker destroyed the coast, Exxon fired Hazelwood, the drunk. The world was now saved . . . from Captain Hazelwood. Hazelwood drove the boat drunk — there are 238,000 Google citations to prove it. But it wasn’t human error, it was inhuman corporate miserliness, profit-boosting shekel-shaving and the fraud that covers it over.
I took a kayak out from Growler Island to Columbia Glacier, the ice floe that shed the icebergs that the radar-blind Exxon Valdez recklessly steered to avoid. The four volumes of evidence will make a nice campfire on the glacier. Unless I violate my contract and put it out for the world’s lazy eyeballs.
Well, I wasn’t hired to save the world, to be Paul Revere warning the planet about BP and its brethren. “The Greencoats are coming! The Greencoats are coming!”
Where the hell was I going? Didn’t know.
American news media got the story of the Exxon Valdez dead wrong. Why not report it myself? Paul Revere was a journalist. Surely, there were newspapers and television outlets in the United States that would like to get out the real story, real investigations. This was not the first time I had fooled myself, and not the last.
I didn’t realize then that quitting my job meant quitting my country. The only way I would be able to lay out the facts on Corporate America was via BBC’s electronic beams from an island off the coast of Ireland.
This is an excerpt from Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates and High-Finance Fraudsters.
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