Washington, DC — Benjamin Franklin, who once said “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days,” would not know what to make of fish stored for eight years – let alone remaining in storage for another three. That is the nub of a dispute between Exxon-Mobil, rated the world’s largest corporation in 2012, versus the U.S. Justice Department and State of Alaska in the seemingly never-ending litigation over damages caused by the 1989 massive Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
At issue is the disposition of evidence gathered to assess long-term damages from the 11-million gallon crude oil tanker spill nearly 25 years ago. While a major portion of the case was settled back in 1991, the U.S. and Alaska jointly submitted a demand in 2006 that ExxonMobil pay $92 million to fund recovery for environmental damages unknown at the time of the settlement. This latter claim, called the Reopener, has never been collected as the two governments claim to still be assembling evidence.
While the Reopener litigation stalled, the two sides had made agreements to dispose of some evidence but those agreements came to a halt after counsel for Exxon-Mobil on March 25, 2013 asked for permission to destroy approximately 300 Pacific herring samples collected from various locations back in 2005:
- In a letter dated May 30, 2013, Alaska and the U.S. Justice Department rejected the company’s request without stating a reason. On June 7th , the law firm representing Exxon-Mobil replied by asking for further information and requesting the two governments to reconsider their position;
- On June 19th, the governments tersely maintained that “the samples are potentially relevant” to the Reopener litigation but added “Instead of providing additional information, the State of Alaska offers to take possession of the samples” and supplied a shipping address; but
- On July 2nd, the company declined that counteroffer, contending that –
“The costs associated with splitting, and possibly analyzing, these samples should the Governments decide to engage in additional research and analysis, far exceed the costs associated with maintaining the samples as currently situated.”
“This squabble over old fish samples that have never even been analyzed highlights how absurd this stalemate has become,” said Rick Steiner, a PEER Board Member and retired University of Alaska marine professor who has repeatedly sought to intervene in the case to break the logjam, noting that the statute of limitations on the Reopener expires in June 2016. “Final recovery is long past due, as a significant amount of the oil remains in beaches, is still toxic, and continues to injure the Alaskan coastal ecosystem.”
Meanwhile, Exxon-Mobil has also asked to destroy large numbers of unanalyzed soil and sediment samples taken back in 1989, which are stored both at Oregon State University in Corvallis and at its corporate headquarters in Houston. The governments, however, are demanding more information before considering these requests.
“The U.S. and Alaska are doing the opposite of what they promised the court, that is to be ‘aggressively seeking to restore natural resource damages unforeseen at the time of the 1991 settlement,’” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out the governments’ Recovery Plan was submitted in 2006. “This is already the longest environmental litigation on record but shows no sign of wrapping up anytime soon.”
The governments’ next status report to the court is not due until March 2014. The governments currently have $195 million in their Exxon Valdez accounts, not counting the unpaid $92 million Reopener claim.