Thirty eight days after the black tide spilled from the Exxon Valdez and began its messy wallow across Prince William Sound, Dennis Kelso stepped before a crowd of angry fishermen in Cordova to assume the mantle of Alaska's environmental warrior.
"There has been a whole pattern of claims and statements by Exxon that just don't bear out when people go look," Kelso said to an angry crowd gathered in the school gymnasium. People cheered.
A newspaper reporter watching the scene that night compared the appearance of Alaska's 39 year old commissioner of environmental conservation to the late Bobby Kennedy. Friends began urging Kelso to run for governor.
Kelso was embarrassed by the adulation, he said, but also emboldened.
During the weeks and months that followed, the usually withdrawn bureaucrat plunged into the national debate on the threat of oil in the environment. Time and again, he used the opportunity to rebuke Exxon.
There was some irony in the fact that Kelso the state official most directly responsible for failing to prevent the spill emerged as the spokesman for an oil fouled Alaska. He had personally approved the industry plan for coping with such a catastrophe.
At an East Coast press conference after the spill, Kelso called the plan "the biggest piece of American maritime fiction since Moby Dick." Questioned later as to why he would approve such a fiction, he argued the plan was among the best in the country.
The mess left by the spill, Kelso said then, was the result of poor execution, not a bad plan. He did not mention that his own staff had warned for years that the plan was a fairy tale sure to fail in a real disaster.
Few Alaskans paid much attention to these discrepancies. When questions inevitably arose about the DEC's performance in the spill, Kelso said the blame lay elsewhere.
IDEALISM AND WILDERNESS
Long before there was a Commissioner Kelso, there was a boy named Denny, a normal, well adjusted youngster growing up in Ames, Iowa. He played football, wrestled and dreamed about the wild north.
The wilderness called to his sense of adventure. It drew him first into the remote forests of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota and later to Alaska.
Kelso has difficulty putting his finger on exactly what brought him here. Maybe his father's stories of adventure in the Aleutian Islands as a soldier in World War II, he said.
Or maybe, as his friends suggest, he was simply a quiet, idealistic youth looking for his own Walden Pond, somewhere he could immerse himself in wilderness and contemplate the problems of the world.
"It takes a lot of energy . . . to engage the world in the issues," said Beau Bassett, a longtime Kelso friend who directs a camp for troubled youth in New Hampshire. "And I think Denny is a person who cares about the issues."
Bassett first met Kelso in 1973 when both were instructors with Minnesota Outward Bound. They worked together for three summers and floated Alaska's Stikine River together the fourth summer. In 1979, they formed a nonprofit, Alaska corporation to help troubled youths through outdoor adventure education.
Kelso was always concerned about social, cultural and environmental issues, Bassett said.
"I think we were all very idealistic," said David McGivern of Girdwood, another Minnesota Outward Bound instructor who worked with Kelso. "It must be in the corn back there."
Kelso had an illustrious, trouble free academic career at Iowa State University and went on to Harvard Law School, according to a profile of Kelso published this summer in the ISU alumni magazine, "but if ever there was a predicament he'd poke his nose into it was a fight for the Little Guy." Kelso came to Alaska for the first time in 1972 to teach swimming to disadvantaged kids. Then it was back to Harvard to study environmental law, with summers from 1973 to 1976 spent teaching for Outward Bound.
He returned to Alaska to clerk for Alaska Supreme Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz. That was followed by work as a public defender that resulted in his lobbying Congress for special hunting and fishing privileges for Alaska Natives.
By the start of the 1980s, Kelso's involvement in the Native rights issue had landed him in the job of director of the Subsistence Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, where he helped create a system of fish and game laws that gave rural Alaskans preferences over their urban counterparts.
Kelso eventually won a promotion to deputy director of Fish and Game, in charge of habitat protection, and in January 1987 came the appointment by Gov. Steve Cowper as environmental commissioner.
THE PERFECT CITIZEN
Kelso's friends believe this was the best appointment Cowper ever made. Kelso, they said, is a model government official, the perfect citizen. Most of his friends, when asked to identify any possible flaws, see none.
"I'd say he's one of the few heroes I've met in my life," said Juneau lobbyist Jim Ayers, a friend and former coworker. "He doesn't drink. He doesn't smoke. He's a bundle of energy. He's dedicated to justice and fair play."
"He's someone who, characteristically, brings very little ego to what he does," said Kelso confidant Richard Fineberg of Juneau.
Friends of Kelso paint a picture of a man too wrapped up in his idealism to worry about personal gain. Friends said Kelso truly believes he can make the world a better place.
Old college buddy Mark Ritchie, now a special assistant to the Minnesota commissioner of agriculture, said Kelso's idealism led him to become an environmentalist before the word became a household term. Ritchie remembers worrying about Kelso after hearing of the Valdez spill.
"My fear was that it would break his heart," Ritchie said.
Kelso himself has admitted much the same thing, though he tends to project the heartbreak onto others. His conversation about the spill is sprinkled with references to the agony and grief caused the common folks, the little people, the average man.
DEC public information officer Barbra Holian said she constantly fields questions from reporters skeptical about Kelso.
"But he is for real," Holian said. "At least that's what I've gotten, and I'm a fairly jaded person."
QUIET BEFORE THE SPILL
Kelso's public life falls into two distinct periods: long years of quiet, unseen labor before the spill, and the highly visible months of activity after it.
In the latter period, of course, Kelso became, if not famous, at least recognizable to most Alaskans. He appeared with Ted Koppel on "Nightline," testified before a string of congressional committees, and became a familiar protagonist in the biggest news story of the day.
But in the long period before the spill, where was Kelso?
Playing the quiet bureaucrat as he had done so often, getting his job done behind the scenes, and making little noise about the myriad unseen problems of which his staff was warning.
Kelso insists that when he took over the DEC the spill contingency plan was a priority, but so was the effort to sell the Alaska Legislature on the vital role of his agency.
The legislature had never acted fondly toward DEC. Legislators often treated it like a roadblock to development. Kelso tried to overcome that attitude by creating a "project budget" for the DEC, a budget that gave the legislature responsibility for specific environmental projects.
"It's like a contract," he said. "They don't just give us a lump sum. They identify what projects we can spend it on. . . . It's down to items of $30,000 to $75,000 in the project breakdown."
Kelso said he created the project budget because in 1987 the legislature gave the DEC $10 million less than he thought it needed to enforce state environmental laws.
"We'd get calls from parents who'd say their kids are having problems breathing; go monitor this," he said. "And we'd say we don't have the money to go monitor the air there. And they'd say, "What do you mean? You've got an air quality program don't you?' So, in order to make clear what we could and couldn't do, we established a project there so (the legislature) could see exactly what they were buying. . . ."
By shifting the prerogative to the legislature, Kelso also unloaded some of his own responsibilities.
Former Commissioner of Transportation Walt Parker, who now heads a state commission investigating the oil spill, thinks the project budget was a mistake. Agencies should set their own agendas, he said.
But Rep. Kay Brown, DAnchorage, disagrees. Brown, who served on the House Finance Committee, believes Kelso's project budget was easier for legislators to understand. That, she said, netted the agency more money than it would have received otherwise.
A DIPLOMAT'S STYLE
Kelso's approach to his budget was not surprising for a man known to some colleagues as Mr. Diplomatic. Kelso, they said, has always liked to do things peacefully and quietly. He is less combative than his predecessor, Bill Ross, said Eric Myers, an aide to Brown.
But Myers credits both men with helping rebuild an agency that had fallen into deep disfavor with the legislature in the early 1980s. Both commissioners were effective, he said; they just had different styles.
Ross was often animated; Kelso more often thoughtful.
Kelso believes his style enables him to do what he needs to do in government. He admits his project budget tends to focus attention on short term rather than long term needs, but "I don't have any question that that was the right way to set the budget up."
The project budget also freed Kelso from making some tough decisions, and decision making has never been easy for Kelso, according to friends and coworkers. He makes good decisions, they said, but he often takes a long time.
"It took forever to get a decision out of his office," recalled Dan Timm, a regional supervisor with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Timm remembers projects that sat for weeks in the office of then assistant fish and game commissioner Kelso.
Exxon criticized the DEC for delaying decisions on the use of dispersants, beach cleaning techniques and waste disposal incinerators. Environmentalists, too, wondered in the initial days after the spill about the agency's aggressiveness.
Publicly, at least, Kelso spent the first month of the spill talking about the need to work with Exxon. That was the attitude most people expected from him.
But after the May issue of Fortune magazine ran a story in which Exxon Chairman Lawrence Rawl accused the state of blocking the use of dispersants that could have saved wildlife, Kelso came out swinging.
"I think this is an arrogant disregard of the truth, and I think it's a systematic effort by Exxon to mislead Alaska and mislead America on Exxon's failure to deal with this spill," he said.
From then on, Kelso stayed on the offensive.
"I was surprised," said Dick Bishop, a former coworker of Kelso's at Fish and Game. "It is not the way in which Denny has conducted a lot of business in the past.
"I'm a little cynical about it, I guess. There's no defense like a good offense. I think DEC got caught with their pants down."
GOING TO THE PRESSAyers, the Juneau lobbyist, said he talked to Kelso before the Exxon offensive. Kelso, Ayers said, wrestled with his decision on how to handle the spill, on whether to try to work with Exxon, which he doubted would accomplish much, or to try to publicly press the company to do what the state wanted done.
"Denny needs to decide, as he always does, what it takes for justice," Ayers said. "Then he'll do whatever needs to be done. He'll pay the price. I think the issue of the press is like that. He never felt he had to go to the press before. In terms of Exxon and the oil spill, that's where he decided the battle was."
Kelso acknowledges that his high visibility on the spill has led to suggestions he run for governor or Congress.
Fineberg dismisses an electoral campaign as improbable, and counter to Kelso's character. Kelso himself is more equivocal. It's possible he could be talked into a campaign, he said, but electoral politics isn't the issue of the moment.
He has courted the press not for personal gain, but for the benefit of the state, he said.
"All we know how to do is say what we know, and let the media have access to whatever we have," he said. "If we had information, if we have a space on a plane, if we have people that you need to talk to, our whole strategy was to make sure you had access.
"That's the reason that I have been more visible perhaps on this."
Kelso believes Exxon is on the ropes now, and he is pressing. He wants Exxon to work in the Sound through the winter. He wants the company to pick up next spring where it left off this year. He swears he won't back off until the company fulfills its responsibility to clean up the mess completely.
Scientists believe that position is naive. By the dozens, oil spill experts have said the equipment and technology simply don't exist for Exxon to do more than a superficial cleanup, which is a lot less than will satisfy Kelso. He wants more done even though there is a growing debate about if more cleanup work will also mean more environmental damage.
"Exxon will never be off the hook with that guy," Ayers said.
Still, one question lingers: Where was Kelso before the March 24 spill?
Don't forget, Bishop said, that it was an overdose of inattention and complacency on the parts of many people, including the agency Kelso runs that led to North America's largest oil spill.
It happened when the DEC, at the urging of environmental groups and with Kelso's blessing, focused most of its attention on ensuring that Alaskans have safe drinking water, that placer mines no longer fill streams with silt, and that hazardous waste sites from leaking gasoline storage tanks to dumped PCBs are cleaned up.
Kelso says his agency didn't overlook the dangers of an oil spill, but Ayers said Kelso has said privately, in passing, that he felt ambushed by the spill.
story 155 of 380
story 11 of 72