In the beginning there was Chuck Hamel.
The year was 1984, and the Virginia businessman was convinced Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. had screwed him out of millions of dollars on a tanker of oil he had brokered for sale to an independent buyer Outside. That financial drubbing set Hamel off on a quest that still hasn't ended -- to make the oil companies pay.
He was an old hand at the watchdog business by the time the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef in 1989, helping orchestrate congressional hearings that took the world's biggest oil companies to task in a national spotlight. Over the next 20 years, he's been instrumental in bringing to light corrosion and other problems on the North Slope and in Valdez.
Hamel will be 80 in a couple of weeks. A blood disorder combined with arthritis has weakened him, impairing his ability to walk. But he's still camped at his kitchen table, now in Marysville, WA, surrounded by stacks of documents and boxes of records, offering up a stable of oil industry whistleblowers to news reporters across the country.
In that sense, the Gulf oil spill has been good to Hamel, who has been fielding calls from people wanting to tap his particular take on BP and its operations. So, too, have other longtime industry watchdogs, particularly those who gained prominence in the oily wake of the Exxon Valdez.
Dan Lawn. Rick Steiner. Riki Ott. It's hard to turn on cable news these days and not see one of them sharing their considerable expertise on anything having to do with an oil spill, from the engineering to the ecology to the economics.
Richard Fineberg. Stan Stephens. Walt Parker. They're still at it, too, writing detailed reports and analyses, running the advocacy boards, staffing the commissions.
So what's wrong with this picture? Maybe it's that they're the same people who have been talking about this stuff for 20 years or more.
Where is the next generation of Alaska oil industry watchdogs? Who will blow the whistles when these guys are gone?