Environmental groups threaten boycott over ousted 'watchdog'

Elizabeth Bluemink

Five conservation groups said Friday they will boycott the citizen group created by Congress to watch over Cook Inlet's oil and gas industry.

The groups are displeased with the watchdog group's recent decision to dismiss environmentalist Bob Shavelson from its board.

In a letter to the Kenai-based Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council on Friday, the groups said they will end the boycott if the council undertakes reforms. But for now, the groups said the council isn't living up to its mission to work on behalf of citizens to promote safe oil industry operations in the region.

Until he was dismissed this month, Shavelson had sat on the council for more than six years. But Shavelson became increasingly critical of the group over the last few years after several close calls, including a runaway oil tanker that grounded near Nikiski in 2006, spilling gasoline, and last year's Redoubt volcanic flows that threatened the Drift River Oil Terminal.

Among the reforms the council needs to consider, the groups said, is removing a provision in its bylaws that allows it to remove a director who says anything negative about the council.

The council -- one of two citizen groups mandated by Congress after the Exxon Oil spill in 1989, one in Cook Inlet and one in Prince William Sound -- declined to comment on the boycott Friday. When it booted Shavelson, the group said his "conduct violated the Cook Inlet RCAC policies."

After listening to public criticism of the council at a meeting in Homer on Friday, council president Grace Merkes pointed out that the Coast Guard gave the council an award for its cooperation during the Redoubt eruption. She said many people don't see the work that the council does.

But Frank Mullen, a commercial salmon fisherman from Homer who worked with Alaska's Congressional delegation on the language creating the Cook Inlet council, said Friday that the council has been a big disappointment since its inception.

"The organization seems to be more of a lapdog than a watchdog," Mullen said, during the council meeting.

"You just kicked off the best watchdog you ever had," he added.

Mullen said he thinks it might make sense to fold the Cook Inlet council into the Prince William Sound council, creating one entity to monitor oil and gas activities along the Southcentral Alaska coastline.

The environmental groups delivered their letter to the council during its regular board meeting Friday. Toby Smith, executive director of the Anchorage-based Alaska Center for the Environment, signed the letter on behalf of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Cook Inletkeeper, Kachemak Bay Conservation Society and the Oil Spill Region Environmental Coalition.

Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.