• Panel meets to discuss finances, Cook Inlet monitoring projects
By Naomi Klouda
At the end of the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, the people who fought for a citizen’s regional council to oversee the oil industry had high hopes a toothy watchdog would be on guard to monitor the oil industry. But the group that emerged over the past 20 years isn’t functioning the way it was intended.
That was the message of a dozen residents testifying before the Cook Inlet Citizens Regional Advisory Council at its 2010 quarterly meeting Friday at the Bidarka Inn. In addition to CIRCAC’s agenda of business, the board was notified of a call to boycott it by five environmental groups over their handling of dismissing Bob Shavelson from the panel. The groups are Alaska Center for the Environment, the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, Cook InletKeeper, the Marine Conservation Council and the Oil Spill Region Environmental Coalition.
The boycott lasts “until it becomes less secretive and more accommodating of dissenting views,” the groups said in a joint press release.
Shavelson was dismissed after a closed door meeting Sept. 1. He received notice 30 minutes prior to the meeting with no chance to prepare a defense, the group said in a release. Shavelson had publicly criticized CIRCAC after a 2009 incident when Mt. Redoubt’s eruptions threatened to rift tankers at the Drift River Terminal Facility.
But CIRCAC President Grace Merkes said details of the situation involving Shavelson’s dismissal are confidential. “I wish I could speak openly about (Shavelson’s) dismissal,” Merkes told those assembled. “But by law its confidential because it involves personnel.”
The official statement about his removal stated that he had failed to follow the council’s protocol in his public criticism.
Beyond their complaints about the specific instance involving Shavelson, individuals testified along more historic or general lines about dissatisfaction with CIRCAC’s performance.
Lifelong Kenai Peninsula resident and commercial fisherman, whose livelihood was lost in the 1989 oil spill, Frank Mullen, talked about the early 1990 efforts when then Sen. Frank Murkowski and the rest of the Alaska congressional delegation put the citizens group together. The pieces of the Oil Pollution Act had been passed with a component for input from commercial fishermen and others who need to be assured the oil industry is taking correct action or preventing spills.
“There was a tremendous amount of optimism from many of us who participated in the launch of the organization,” said Mullen, one of the original council members. “An oil spill dramatically impacts everyone but commercial fishermen are on the front line.”
With more than 1,500 permit holders in Cook Inlet, Mullen feels CIRCAC hasn’t interacted with that constituency through the years, though the council was created to give them a say. “This to me has been a major disappointment, not only that they haven’t been encouraged, but there’s been the actual reverse of that,” he said.
Based on remarks Mullen made in a recent opinion piece published in the Homer Tribune, CIRCAC President Grace Merkes asked Mullen questions.
“In your article, you mentioned seeing CIRCAC taken over by the Prince William Sound regional advisory – why would that be different except that they receive money from the pipeline (Alyeska Pipeline Co.) and we receive ours from the oil companies?” she asked.
Mullen responded that it would eliminate duplication of staff and administration, an expense that takes about $700,000 a year. This composes 80 percent of the CIRCAC’s $1 million a year budget, he noted.
Calling CIRCAC more lap dog than watchdog of the oil companies, Mullen nonetheless acknowledged the cap on funding is “a huge problem.” The Prince William Sound RCAC receives $2 million per year in its budget.
The criticism didn’t get any better as the morning progressed.
Kachemak Bay Conservation Society Director Roberta Highland testified that she was confounded by the round of praise given out to the incident command after the near catastrophe at the Drift River Oil Terminal in 2009.
“I was shocked by the lack of oversight on the part of CIRCAC. I saw and heard people patted on the back for a job well done that I thought was a job poorly done,” she said.
Mike O’Meara, who recalled when CIRCAC first formed, said he was troubled by the larger ramifications of the council’s response to dissenting member Bob Shavelson. Institutional loyalty isn’t supposed to override the larger role of loyalty to the citizens it represents, he said.
“I find this reprehensible and sad,” he said, speaking tearfully. “I think you may have broken the organization. I think you may not survive. You’re all good people with a hard job to do,but I think you have fallen into a deep hole.”
Former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams, who sits on the council representing the City of Kenai, gave back a bit of criticism to the environmental groups assembled. Where are their powerful voices when it comes to changing laws that would help get CIRCAC out of its role as dependent on funding from the oil companies?
As the former Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor and in other public positions during the past two decades, Williams has identified needed changes in the Oil Pollution Act. An obvious one is to change how CIRCAC is funded.
“We have to go to the oil industry to ask for funding dollars. We were double-timed by Congress because we weren’t allowed to go to them for funding – and we haven’t been able to get (Washington) D.C. to hear our plea that we need to get them to modify the law,” Williams said.
The $1 million in funding per year for an organization meant to monitor the complicated tidal waters of Cook Inlet, probably one of the most heavily-trafficked bodies of Alaska water, doesn’t stretch far, he said.
“We need to change this source of funding so we won’t be in the sticky wicket of people saying we’re in bed with the oil industry because that’s how we get our funding,” he said. “Why haven’t you helped to lobby Congress to change the law?”
Carla Stanley, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist, sits on the council representing Homer.
Shavelson’s spot has not been filled. Ultimately, the permanent replacement comes at the end of a nomination and election process involving nine environmental groups in that stakeholder entity, as outlined in CIRCAC’s bylaws for the environmental seat.
Merkes said the process should be complete by February.
The meeting Friday proceeded with a report on finances, and the state of current projects. CIRCAC is involved in:
• Ice forecasting – Two new cameras located at Port McKenzie and Port of Anchorage provide images from each side of Cook Inlet as ice moves out of Knik Arm. Two other new cameras will be installed this fall at docks at Nikiski. These will be operational all year, with a focus on ice in winter, and possible application for studies on the endangered beluga whale in other seasons.
• Macrocystis surveys – Newly documented kelp beds may have been established by human activity, or came about naturally, in waters along the U.S. West Coast and now, in the Alaska Gulf. CIRCAC has a monitoring study in collaboration with University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate students to map where those kelps are found.
• One of CIRCAC’s goals is to provide shore zone imagery and data to oil spill planners and responders. About 13,000 aerial photos during a six-day low tide window in 2009 were collected of the entire Cook Inlet shoreline to replace lower resolution photos taken in 2001-2003. A prototype was made to make all information available to public entities on an external drive in case Internet is not available.
• Reports on environmental monitoring of sediments and water data collected from more than a dozen sites ranging from the Mat-Su to Grewingk Glacier should be finalized this fall, with public presentations to follow. The Integrated Cook Inlet Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program looks for metals, hydrocarbons, organic pollutants, benthic invertebrate assemblages and sediment type from the various ecosystems.
• Ballast water risks report is due out this winter.
Comments are closed