Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rick Steiner, Alaska's 2010 Muckraker of the Year

Former University of Alaska professor, Rick Steiner, has been named Cook Inletkeeper's 2010 Alaska Muckraker of the Year. He is the fourth person to receive this honor. His predecessors were:

2007 - Ray Metcalfe: Ray is credited by many for having been a prime impetus behind the decisions by the U.S. Justice Department to look more closely at the machinations of oil company servicing giant, Veco, and its chairman, Bill Allen. Ray has also been a longtime thorn in the sides of corrupt politicians of every stripe in Alaska. Ray has recently begun a new web site, Citizens for Ethical Government.

2008 - Riki Ott: Marine toxicologist Ott's award came around the time of the release of her important book, Not One Drop - Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Her lectures on the legacy of the EVOS, and efforts to gain support for a revocation of personhood to corporations were interrupted last spring by the Gulf of New Mexico oil spill disaster. Since April, Ott has had an intensely busy schedule, educating coastal residents in five states from Texas to Florida on how to deal with long term effects of BP's legacy, and on how to fight oil company intimidation and dishonesty.

2009 - Jeanne Devon: Blogger, commentator and journalist Devon's efforts to draw public attention to the negligent handling of oil in the Drift River storage facility during Mt. Redoubt's 2009 eruptions were just the most prominent of the muckraking and environmental advocacy efforts at her blog, The Mudflats. Devon has created a unique community at that site, and a forum there for several environmentalist writers and activists, Rick Steiner among them.

2010 - Rick Steiner: Like Ott, Steiner is a scientist and former Cordova area fisher, with a deeply abiding love for Prince William Sound. I first met Rick in the spring of 1986, when I was on the crew of a halibut fishing boat in Cordova. My skipper, Bill Black, raved about the guy running the Cordova Sea Grant program, as our crew watched one of that program's educational videos on how to properly care for halibut as they came aboard.

Three years later, Steiner led efforts to save the new Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation hatchery at Sawmill Bay from the oncoming oil deluge from the bowels of the Exxon Valdez. The "Battle of Sawmill Bay" was an Alaska epic. Art Davidson's 1990 book, In the Wake of the Exxon Valdez, describes Steiner's key role at the time:
Steiner kept pressuring Craig Rassinier, Exxon's oil spill response manager, to send skimmers to the Mosquito Fleet. Rassinier, knowing that skimmers were needed in several places at once, took a deep breath, and said, "Okay, we'll send them over."

Steiner pressed for better [containment] boom, and more of it. "Send us some real containment boom. We need it immediately."

"There just isn't any," Rassinier said.

"Well, find some. Come on, we have to have it," Steiner insisted. "We can't lose that hatchery."

Steiner noted tears welling up in Rassinier's eyes. "He wanted to give us what we needed, but he just couldn't do it. He had to leave the room."
After the spill and its immediate aftermath, Steiner continued a role he had become noted for in the spill, that of intermediary between residents of Prince William Sound and the energy companies. One of Alaska's preeminent environmental writers, Charles Wohlforth, in a May 1990 profile of Steiner, wrote of Rick's efforts:

Cordova fisherman Rick Steiner, in his loose cotton clothes and Viking beard, looks more like a hippie than a card shark in a political poker game worth half a billion dollars.

The poker game was a deal between the U.S. Department of Justice and Exxon U.S.A. Exxon wanted to plead guilty to criminal charges over its Prince William Sound oil spill and pay $500 million. In exchange the federal government would drop other spill lawsuits for four years, a potentially crippling blow for civil litigants waiting in the wings.

The cards were dealt at a meeting in Washington, D.C., last January. The only players were Steiner and Frank Iarossi, then the president of Exxon Shipping Co. unlikely friends from their days fighting the Exxon oil spill together.

At the meeting, Iarossi gambled by telling Steiner about the Justice Department deal, apparently hoping to enlist his political talents without revealing the deal's negative aspects.

Steiner played his hand, and apparently won. A few weeks later, the deal was up in smoke and Iarossi was in a new job.

It wasn't a bad showing for a guy who a year earlier had been playing with hand puppets, a reluctant wheeler dealer who would rather be a fisherman and small town, small scale greenie.

The spill turned Steiner into a spokesman for fishermen and environmentalists. While angry townspeople and fishermen ranted, Steiner was the reasonable, friendly intermediary willing to work in private with cabinet secretaries and oil company presidents.

The role has grown. The oil spill cleanup has shrunk and fishermen and coastal communities are trying to resume normal lives, but spill litigation that could change their future is just blossoming into full expense and complexity.

Steiner's goals are to protect fishermen's rights, mediate fights between state and federal lawyers, and get money for his own pet cause: blocking clear cutting of trees in the Sound, especially where logging could leave wasteland out Cordova's front door.

Throughout the 1990s and the first eight years of the 21st century, Steiner continued his Sea Grant Program educational efforts for the University of Alaska. He was targeted, though, by Bush administration officials at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and by University of Alaska president, Gen. Mark Hamilton. I've suspected for the last two years that Steiner first became a high profile target of conservatives and neo-conservatives after his 2006-2007 report for the Lebanese Government on the Jiyeh Power Station oil spill. Although Steiner's report (PDF) is quite even-handed, the career stopper for Steiner might have been tied to this assessment:
Professor Rick Steiner, the oil spill expert from the University of Alaska, was commissioned by Green Line and IUCN for the first time in August 2006 to assess the oil spill in Lebanon. Professor Steiner’s assessment during the month of August 2006 showed that delaying cleanup efforts has increased the ecological damage from the oil spill and that local authorities have not been doing their jobs properly.

Professor Steiner also held Israel responsible for this oil spill and requested 1 billion dollar compensation for the damage.
Not that this was the only reason NOAA and UA officials were under pressure to get rid of Steiner. In Steiner's 2007-2010 battle to keep his Sea Grant funding and UA office intact, there was a wide array of interests grouped against him. In late 2007 he became the chief advocate for Alaska's Polar bears, when the Palin administration fought to keep scientific deliberations on how endangered the bears might actually be from the public eye. Here's what I wrote about Rick's efforts at the time:
The Palin administration appears to be making major efforts, not only to keep the bears moved from vulnerable to endangered status, but to make it difficult for academics like UA's Prof. Rick Steiner from gaining access to vital information about research done in Alaska on Polar Bears.

Why is it that something this important has to be gleaned from the Anchorage Daily News' Sunday Ear column? I'll quote Sheila Toomey's coverage of Steiner's situation in entirety:

Oil industry watchdog Rick Steiner recently submitted a Freedom of Information request to state Fish and Game for public records regarding the listing of polar bears as endangered. He wanted the records "to see how politics influenced their position to oppose the listing," Rick said in a note.

F&G Commissioner Denby Lloyd wrote back that the fee for what Rick
wanted would be $468,784. Rick, a prof at UAA, said he's going to ask if they'll accept his IOU. Denby gently suggested Rick might want to narrow his search request. Rick not so gently suggested it was obstructionism by Palin, who has said publicly she doesn't think polar bears should be listed.
Steiner also came under fire for "advocacy." The University of Alaska definition of "advocacy" in the case of scientists who work there seems to be "any effort to question or delegitimize oil companies and their efforts. Efforts to support oil companies is not "advocacy," only efforts critical of these companies."

Steiner had the temerity to agree with Bristol Bay residents that offshore drilling in the midst of the world's richest wild salmon harvest area might not be a good idea. This was the final nail in the coffin of Steiner's longtime efforts to have Alaska's Sea Grant Program be one of, if not the very best in the country.

Perhaps the shadiest chapter in the endgame of the hounding of Steiner came from Alaska's media, particularly The Alaska Dispatch. I've written here about Dispatch writers Craig Medred and Maia Nolan's dishonest or incomplete treatment of both Steiner and Ott. Susan B. Andrews and John Creed joined PA in criticism of Hamilton, and of Nolan's treatment of Steiner:

Nolan allowed Hamilton and the oil industry into her piece through the back door. After focusing for some time on arts censorship, at one point her piece morphs into a lopsided opportunity for Mark Hamilton to pontificate on his decision to censure Professor Rick Steiner, whose academic freedom did not involve the more benign allowance for arts expression on campus but direct criticism of the oil industry. In her article, Nolan not only allows Hamilton extensive opportunities to speak about Steiner but at one point quotes Hamilton actually speaking for Steiner--without ever contacting the professor for a response.

This April, Steiner, like Dr. Ott, was drawn into helping Gulf of Mexico residents deal with the worst oil spill in American history. Like Ott, he has given quite selflessly. Like Ott, he has been largely, though not totally ignored by the Alaska press in these efforts.

Perhaps Alaska's "lamestream media" can make up for past sins of omission and commission on Steiner, and give him some well earned coverage at the time of this important award. After all, it has been more than 20 years since Charles Wolforth's estimable portait of this iconic Alaska environmentalist.

Tell you what, Maia and Craig: Come to the 2010 Muckraker's Ball. I'll buy each of you your first drink there.

Congratulations, Rick Steiner!


tewise said...

Congratulations Mr. Steiner, you deserve the distinction and recognition.

nswfm said...

Congratulations Mr. Steiner!

As for resource extraction and corporate interests:

And here is an additional look from the artist/lawyer:

Anonymous said...

I wish someone would look more closely into Palin's tenure on the Oil & Gas board wherein she supposedly 'uncovered' that damaging info on Randy Ruederich. Something has never smelled right about that, yet she wafted away with the credit as a corruption-buster.

The initial facts suggest that Palin herself may have had some involvement with the Evergreen affair, as she attended that meeting where Ruederich was pushing the Evergreen agenda, and yet said not a word. It seems to me that the Democrats in power pressed Palin to dig up dirt on Ruederich. . .possibly under threat of her own nefarious dealings with the company being exposed? She seemed rather hysterical at one point that she was going to be left holding the bag(email record).

I just don't see Palin taking the initiative on anything, nor having the know-how to do so.

Perhaps one of your muckrakers has an opinion on this? Or perhaps one day Ruederich will spill the beans, should there be beans to be spilled.