This will be FUN!
I missed last year's Muckrakers' Ball in Homer. Ray Metcalfe was honored there then, as 2007 Alaska Muckraker of the Year. I'll be at 'Koot's for this one.
Riki Ott may be the most deserving candidate for this honor there is. The honor being bestowed upon her by Cook Inlet Keeper is fitting, in time, if not in place.
The party should be - if there were a green way to do it - somewhere on Prince William Sound. At sea. With a lot of Cordova and other Alaska fishers. We would be able to bring plaintiffs from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, who have since passed away, back from beyond, to help us celebrate.
Dr. Ott wasn't the first to predict the Exxon Valdez catastrophe before it happened. She was the last.
I remember heading out with a load of Tanner crab (snow crab, these days) pots to Unakwik Inlet, on the Cordova crabber, Jo-Be, in early December, 1975. As we crossed below Bligh Island, headed westward, our skipper, the elder Jerry Thorne, turned to me. We were up on the open flying bridge, enjoying a spectacular mid-afternoon sunset, as he drove us toward its ebbing gold, orange, pink and lavender cold warmth.
He blew his Pall Mall ashes off the end of his glowing cigarette butt with a quick nostril exhalation. He laughed. It wasn't a light laugh.
"That's where it'll go down," he blurted out, as he looked northward.
Jerry was pretty common-sense when it came to fishing, usually limiting his bridge talk to the boat, the route, the gear, the string we were about to lay out or pick up. But every once in a while, he reached into his wisdom, gleaned from observing what happens at sea, off the Northwest coasts, from Eureka to Dutch Harbor.
"What'll go down?"
"One of those goddam HUGE tankers. Right there - on Bligh Reef. I hope it's on the way in, not on the way out."
Two and a half years later, May 1978, I was at a conference in Anchorage. The pipeline was being built. Along with a lot of other "stakeholders" (the first time I heard that term), I was at the MESA Summit, where we listened to various officials, functionaries and politicians talk about how the pipeline and Valdez terminal and tanker routes would function when the line was done and the oil flowed.
I was there as Whittier Harbormaster. Another ex-skipper of mine, Pete Isleib from Cordova, was there too. He represented a lot of local knowledge. I think he was ostensibly there as the pre-eminent ornithologist from Southcentral Alaska, which he was. But he had also spent thousands of hours on the Sound, year-round, gathering data for various bird, marine mammal and fish surveys.
We were both in a focus group, headed by a couple of Coast Guard officers, on the proposed tanker traffic separation lanes and proposed safety measures. Pete and I sat next to each other.
The Coast Guard moderators and a couple of oil company and Alyeska focus group members waxed eloquently about how smooth it all was going to work. Pete kept shaking his head quietly, back and forth. I looked at him, wondering.
Finally, Pete jumped on the statement of one of the coasties, saying something like "You're talking like this sort of plan always works. It doesn't always work. It always breaks down!
"There'll be a spill. Within ten years or so, there'll be a spill.
"It will happen at Seal Rocks, or Johnstone Point, or Bligh Reef, or Potato Point. Most likely, at Bligh Reef. It always happens at one of those places."
In January 1980, while still serving as Whittier harbormaster, I got a call late at night. A tanker had lost power on the Sound. Valdez Coast Guard wanted a Whittier-based Crowley tug to assist. The weather was really, really shitty. I helped roust Crowley deckhands from one of the bars. I ended up going along.
The single-engined, single-hulled tanker, Prince William Sound, had been adrift for hours. In the SSE gale force winds, the loaded hulk had slowly drifted into the dangerous waters to the southwest of Glacier Island, headed for disaster. A Valdez-based tug had showed up, but it was far larger than the tug from Whittier we were on - the Avenger. The bigger tug had already torn two lines, trying to gain control of the tanker. The Avenger was requested to get in close and use its smaller size, lighter tonnage, to put on a tow line and save the tanker.
The crew did it. I watched. At any time, almost any of these guys could have been killed by a zinging, thrashing parted cable.
They managed to get the tanker under control. It was about a half mile from a group of rocks whose name I can't remember. Eventually, the Avenger was trying to pass the load to the larger tug, when the tanker's engineers managed a re-start.
Alyeska and the oil companies AND the Coast Guard issued statements about the incident that clearly lied about the last position of the Prince William Sound when it was rescued.
Just over eight years later, on March 23, 1989, the evening the Exxon Valdez last pulled away from its anchorage alongside the Valdez oil terminal, Riki Ott was addressing a town meeting in Valdez, telephonically from Cordova. The meeting, called by Valdez mayor John Devins, was about pipeline and tanker route safety.
Ott's voice, coming over the Valdez city council chambers speakers coldly intoned, "We're playing Russian roulette here. It's not a matter of 'if.' It's just a matter of when we get the big one."
As Art Davidson wrote, in his 1990 book, In the Wake of the Exxon Valdez (from which some of this account is taken - pp. 7-9), "While Ott was voicing her concerns and the Alyeska staff was celebrating its safety record, Captain Joseph Hazelwood was taking shore leave...."
Dr. Riki Ott isn't being honored for her oracular gifts on that occasion. She is being honored, rather, for her persistence, and for her continuing oracular gifts. If her persistence has long been recognized by environmental and ecological organizations like Cook Inlet Keeper, her more important sagacity and common sense, has been used far too little.
I'll be writing more about Dr. Ott over the next two or three weeks. I've admired her work from afar for years, dedicating my most heartfelt orchestral work to her efforts.
And I'll be at 'Koots, for the Muckrakers' Ball!
On Sunday, December 14th, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m, I'll be hosting Dr. Ott's Book Salon appearance at firedoglake. She will be discussing her new book, Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.
My review copy came today. I can't put it down!