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September 17, 2021

Vulture’s Picnic – My Home is Now a Strange Place (Installment 4)

Here is the next installment of Greg Palast’s new book Vulture’s Picnic. He has allowed The Mudflats to bring you Chapter 7 – My Home is Now a Strange Place in its entirety. This is an exclusive excerpt, just for Mudflatters. I find it absolutely riveting.

If you need to catch up, here are links to the first three installments.

Installment 1

Installment 2
Installment 3

**********************************
Chapter 7, continued
By Greg Palast

STEINHATCHEE, FLORIDA

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.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

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.

What else?

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. . . .

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5 Responses to “Vulture’s Picnic – My Home is Now a Strange Place (Installment 4)”
  1. Just Me says:

    Woe is me. They just keep getting away with it and it is beyond sickening. That’s why we must all stick together and end Citizens United by a constitutional amendment. With just a little effort you can many sites with petitions to AMEND this dastardly Supreme Court decision and then we need to get rid of Justices Thomas and Scalia as a starter.

  2. mike from iowa says:

    Fascinating read. I doubt if much or anything has changed,especially with greedy korporate/people imposters.

  3. Sheryll says:

    I divide my time between Alaska and Steinhatchee, so I my jaw dropped when I saw the name on Mudflats. I doubt that anyone from Steinhatchee will read this book– it’s a pretty homogeneous community of Republican non-readers– but there are no hard beaches in Steinhatchee. Just miles of coastal marsh with wonderful birding and fishing. Sorry– no drag racing. But the bad part is right, was and still is. And the Stewart name was in the middle of it years ago.

  4. Zyxomma says:

    This installment made me cry. Literally. I have the tissue box right next to me, and I’m using it.

  5. LibertyLover says:

    Dammit!

    How do corporations masquerading as people get away with it?

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