Exxon Valdez Damages Remain Unsettled After 21 Years
Inability to Document Natural Resource Damages May Bedevil BP Spill Payments
Washington, DC — More than 21 years after the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, funds set aside for long-term damages to natural resources have yet to be collected, according to documents posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The U.S. Justice Department claims it is still waiting for additional scientific studies before taking Exxon to court to collect a final $92 million claim for harm to fish, wildlife, habitat and subsistence resources.
In 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled over 11 million gallons of crude oil on the Alaska coast. The $1 billion 1991 settlement with Exxon (now ExxonMobil) called for an added payment of up to $100 million for environmental damages unknown at the time of the settlement. On August 31, 2006, the U.S. and Alaska jointly submitted a demand for ExxonMobil to pay $92 million to finance a restoration plan for these unanticipated environmental injuries. This unresolved government environmental claim is separate from the business claims, which were resolved in 2008 by the U.S. Supreme Court for $507 million.
That $92 million government “Reopener” was never collected. In March 2009, PEER and Rick Steiner, a now retired University of Alaska professor who has intensively participated in conservation issues relating to the Exxon Valdez spill, sent a letter to both the U.S. and Alaska Attorneys General asking them to act immediately to collect the overdue claim. Alaska never replied and has yet to disclose scores of documents detailing its negotiations with ExxonMobil. Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department in a letter dated August 21, 2009, indicated the federal government was still waiting for additional scientific studies before forcing the payment.
“The governments demanded this payment for unanticipated long term environmental injuries from Exxon four years ago, yet they still haven’t collected a dime of it,” stated Steiner, now a PEER Board Member. “Such extraordinary government neglect for the Alaska spill certainly doesn’t bode well for government promises of full and prompt restoration of the Gulf of Mexico.”
This year’s BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico was nearly 20 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. The well has not even been finally closed yet there is substantial scientific disagreement and uncertainty over how much oil remains in the Gulf environment and its long-term impacts. While BP has created a $20 billion fund to pay for economic losses it has rebuffed calls to create a $20 billion environmental restoration fund for the Gulf.
“Are we also going to argue for a generation about how much is owed from the BP spill?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Our concern is that the political incentives for the Obama administration to declare the Gulf restored before the presidential reelection may drown out evidence of long term ecological damage which merits compensation.”