MARYSVILLE — Few people around here knew the story behind Charles “Chuck” Hamel, who died in a Marysville nursing home bed one morning last month while listening to music through his headphones.
At 84 and in failing health, he looked forward to his wife’s daily visits. She’d clip newspaper stories for them to discuss, as they had for years, and they’d watch the national news together in the evening.
Old age — a heart attack, aching joints and other maladies — had caught up with him, but he still wanted to know about the issues of the day.
His life story read a bit like a John Grisham novel. He was a businessman-turned-whistle-blower whose secret sources and access to leaked internal documents confounded big oil companies in Alaska and resulted in millions of dollars spent to fix health, safety and environmental problems.
Hamel not only knew how to get information, he was a master at using it to force change. He passed it on to politicians, government regulators and the media, sparking congressional investigations into oil industry practices along the way. He’d been interviewed on the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes” and was quoted in The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
At one point, exasperated oil companies hired a private security firm to spy on him and his wife. They sifted through his mail, hijacked his trash, secretly recorded him, snooped into his finances and sent women with phony identities to try to wheedle information out of him. They even created a dummy environmental group of nonexistent lawyers as a ruse to try to lure Hamel into divulging his contacts.
Rick Steiner, a biologist and retired University of Alaska, Fairbanks, marine conservation professor, worked closely with Hamel for many years.
“I think the oil industry is so big, so powerful, so rich that when they decide they are going to wrong somebody they are used to winning,” Steiner said. “They figure those people don’t have the money, the savvy or the energy to fight them. They were dead wrong on the Chuck Hamel calculation and I think they know that now.”
Kathleen Hamel met her future husband in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. A political science major who grew up in Marysville, she worked as a secretary for Everett native son and U.S. Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson. Hamel also worked on the hill. Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota once helped him get an elevator operator job in the Capitol. As a college student he worked for Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson. He became an aide for Sen. Thomas Dodd of Connecticut and later to Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska. The Hamels were married for 37 years.
“I was so proud of Chuck,” she said recently. “I really was honored to share his life, but always a little terrified.”
Her husband not only stirred the pot. He made sure it boiled over.
Creating controversy wasn’t his initial intent. As an aide to Gravel, he worked relentlessly to convince Alaskans, commercial fishermen and native populations that the oil industry would be good for their state and would build an environmentally sound pipeline and port terminal.
Later, he did well in the private sector, owning oil leases and working as an oil and shipping broker. He made millions but lost much of his fortune when the quality of his crude came into question. He ended up filing a complaint against the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.,a group of major oil companies operating the trans-Alaska pipeline, when he suspected they were giving him oil that was diluted with water.
His complaint was dismissed, but he’d become convinced the oil industry had cheated him and others.
He began looking into environmental and health and safety concerns raised by people working for the oil companies who were willing to pass along information anonymously. He targeted the oil companies’ Valdez tanker port and problems along the 800-mile pipeline.
“I decided that I had to do something to prove to the public that the oil industry had violated their legal and moral obligations to Alaska,” Hamel told a House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs in November 1991.
“The more I heard, the angrier I got about what was going on,” he said. “Alyeska was polluting the water by introducing toxic sludge, including cancer-causing benzene, into the pristine waters of Port Valdez and Prince William Sound. Alyeska was poisoning the Valdez fjord’s air by venting extremely hazardous hydrocarbon vapors directly into the atmosphere. There was no regulatory oversight and thus no regulatory violations.”
At the time, the House Committee was looking into the covert surveillance of Hamel and others. Former employees of Wackenhut Corp., a private security firm, testified on Hamel’s behalf. They described how a make-believe company, the Ecolit Group, was concocted to fool Hamel to gain information about his contacts.
“In my view, it is important to find out why some of the largest and most powerful corporations in this country would resort to such elaborate sting tactics to invade and destroy the privacy of Mr. Hamel, federal and state officials, environmentalists and ordinary citizens,” committee chairman, Congressman George Miller, said at the time.
Miller said he believed the tactics were meant to silence environmental critics and intimidate whistle-blowers.
Hamel sued and won a settlement before going to trial.
In a 2011 story, a New York Times reporter wrote: “The national media lionized him as the whistle-blower folk hero who took on one of the world’s most powerful industries and won.”
Steiner, the biologist, met Hamel well before the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that brought greater scrutiny to the oil industry in Alaska. He came to admire his colleague’s instincts, tenacity and political acumen.
“In a sense, he kind of paved the way for greater citizen oversight of the oil industry, not just here in Alaska but nationally,” he said.
People trusted that he would do something with the information they provided, he said. Hamel felt an obligation to speak in their behalf.
“The phenomenon of Chuck Hamel would not have been possible if it were not from some brave oil workers in the industry,” Steiner said. “They saw wrongdoing and they wanted it fixed. They had no recourse within the companies. They felt their jobs were at risk. He became their ombudsman in a sense.”
Yet in Marysville, where Hamel moved in April 2009, that celebrity was little known.
His health soon began to fail. He died April 9. Few in the congregation at the Marysville United Methodist Church were familiar with his life story.
“They just knew Chuck as my husband,” Kathleen said. “They don’t understand what he has done.”
She hopes they and others will learn more at his May 17 memorial service. It’s at 2 p.m. that day at the church, 5600 64th St. NE.
As she makes the arrangements, she is thinking about what to put on his headstone.
In her mind, she sees an etching with the words: “He spoke truth to power.”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.