Washington, DC — Even though it was 25 years ago today that the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled more than 11 million gallons of crude oil onto the Alaska coast, its impacts are still being debated in both the courthouse and the Alaska statehouse, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The issue driving the ongoing debate is how much damage the spill is still causing Alaska’s fish, wildlife and environment.
The court case involves part of the original 1991 billion dollar settlement with Exxon which called for an added payment of up to $100 million for environmental damages unknown at the time of the settlement. In 2006, the U.S. and Alaska jointly submitted a demand that the oil company pay $92 million to fund recovery for these injuries. This $92 million government “Reopener” claim has never been collected.
In the ensuing years, the governments asked for more time until environmental studies were completed. Following their July 2013 status report, U.S. District Judge H. R. Holland wrote “The court is dismayed that so few of the projects that the Governments had expected to be completed by now have been completed.”
On March 14, 2014, the U.S. Justice Department and Alaska filed yet another status report claiming progress on ecological studies but indicating no resolution until the fall at the earliest:
“As the last of these scientific reports nears completion and public release, the Governments are reviewing the information from all of the aforementioned studies, both internally and with each other. They will also be consulting with counsel to discuss how to proceed vis-à-vis their Reopener claim, including contact with Exxon. We propose to file an update with the Court on October 15, 2014.”
On March 20th, Judge Holland issued an order stating that the court expects the scientific studies will be “completed by June of 2014” and directed “that the parties will first endeavor to resolve disagreements, if any, amongst themselves” prior to returning to the court for “further proceedings” in October.
"The Exxon Valdez Reopener provision was a legal commitment by all three parties to the historic 1991 spill settlement – the State of Alaska, the U.S. government, and Exxon – and all parties have betrayed this commitment,” commented Rick Steiner, a PEER Board Member and retired University of Alaska professor who attempted to intervene in 2010 to break the logjam in the longest running environmental lawsuit in history. “Alaska’s wildlife and environment are still nowhere near recovered and some populations may never recover, and the government is doing nothing about it."
Today, Alaska’s Senate Judiciary Committee takes up a measure (Senate Joint Resolution No. 25, introduced by Senator Berta Gardner of Anchorage) calling on the governments “to immediately file a motion in United States District Court to collect the full amount of the demand for payment of” $127,240,982 – the original claim plus 5% interest. SJR 25 also directs the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council to tap existing funds to “immediately initiate the subsurface lingering oil restoration work” until the Reopener claim is paid.
The initial spill killed millions of marine mammals, birds, fish, and invertebrates. Twenty five years later, only 13 of the 32 monitored populations and habitats are considered fully “recovered” or “very likely recovered.” While other populations, such as Pacific herring, and the AT1 killer whale pod, are still listed as “not recovering.” Thousands of gallons of toxic Exxon Valdez oil remain in beach sediments along Prince William Sound and in a frigid climate have degraded at a far slower rate than anticipated.
“Waiting on the governments in this case has been like waiting for Godot,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the 2010 Gulf BP blowout, which has yet to reach settlement of what will be multi-billion dollar civil damage payments, is more than 20 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill. “One lesson from Exxon Valdez is a broken ecosystem cannot be easily, quickly or possibly ever fixed.”