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20 Years After Valdez Oil Spill, Exxon Still Owes $92M
WASHINGTON, DC, March 24, 2009 (ENS) - Today is the 20th anniversary of the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, but the federal and state governments have yet to collect millions of dollars that the oil company agreed to pay.

A final $92 million claim for harm to wildlife, habitat and subsistence users filed in 2006 has gone unanswered by the Exxon Corporation, now ExxonMobil.

Early in the morning on March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound spilling more than 11 million gallons of crude oil onto the Alaska coast, causing an estimated $15 billion in damages.

The Exxon Valdez sits hard aground, spilling oil into Prince William Sound. (Photo courtesy Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council)

The Exxon Valdez spill was one of the most worst environmental disasters in history. The spill covered over 10,000 square miles of Alaska’s coastline. Oil spread along 1,300 miles of shoreline, fouling a national forest, two national parks, two national wildlife refuges, five state parks, four state critical habitat areas, one state game sanctuary, and many ancestral lands for Alaska natives.

It killed hundreds of thousands of birds, marine mammals, fish, invertebrates; and disrupted the economy, culture, and livelihoods of coastal residents.

The cleanup took four summers and cost approximately $2 billion, according to a report by the state and federal governments.

The 1991 settlement following the guilty plea by Exxon Corporation provided for $900 million in payments, a $25 million criminal fine and $100 million in restitution.

The plea agreement also called for added payment of up to $100 million for unanticipated damages unknown at the time of the settlement.

In the weeks following the spill, cleanup crews sprayed oiled rocks with high pressure hoses. Many became ill from breathing the petroleum vapors and the spray damaged beach structures. (Photo courtesy EVOSTC)

On June 1, 2006, the United States and the State of Alaska notified Exxon Corporation, pursuant to the "reopener" provision in the civil settlement, that additional restoration would be necessary to address injuries that were not foreseen at the time of the 1991 settlement.

The federal and state governments have demanded that Exxon fund restoration projects, estimated at $92 million, based on the continued presence of oil in the habitats of Prince William Sound and Gulf of Alaska beaches.

After submission of the reopener claim, ExxonMobil had 90 days to pay or respond. Yet the claim has been unsatisfied, as neither the administration of President George W. Bush nor the administration of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin took any action to collect.

On Friday, Professor Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor who has intensively monitored conservation issues relating to the spill, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sent a letter to both U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Alaska Acting Attorney General Richard Svobodny asking them to act immediately to collect the overdue claim.

Oil from the Exxon Valdez spill persists just beneath the surface of Prince William Sound beaches. (Photo courtesy EVOSTC)

According to the joint-federal restoration plan presented in 2006, the funds would be used to address the presence of substantial subsurface pockets of oil and the continuing toxicity of oil still in the environment.

In addition, the funds would address the higher than expected wildlife mortality, especially among predator species, and the resulting impacts on subsistence hunters and fishers.

“The coastal ecosystem injured by the Exxon Valdez spill is still a long way from full recovery,” said Steiner. “The governments should bring Exxon into court to collect this last bit of compensation for their environmental recklessness, and the governments should be allowed to use the money in the highest and best interest of ecological recovery – whatever that may be.”

For the Obama administration, say Steiner and PEER Executive Director attorney Jeff Ruch, this may be an early opportunity to signal its approach to environmental enforcement. In addition, once secured these funds would be almost immediately translated into new environmental restoration jobs.

“It is mystifying that our government has not lifted a finger in the past three years to collect millions that one of the biggest polluters in history has agreed to pay,” said Ruch. “At this moment, the $92 million payment would be a corporate-financed stimulus package, giving taxpayers a welcome break.”

In its newly issued 20th anniversary Status Report, the state and federal Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council lists only 10 of the 31 injured resources and services they monitor as “Recovered.” Ten more, including killer whales and sea otters are listed as "Recovering." Populations of Pacific herring and pigeon guillemots are listed as “Not Recovering.”

Herring have not recovered sufficiently to support a commercial fishery. (Photo courtesy EVOSTC)

The most important species that is still experiencing significant problems is Pacific herring, an ecologically and commercially important species in Prince William Sound. They are central to the marine food web, providing food to marine mammals, birds, invertebrates, and other fish. Herring are also commercially fished for food, bait, sac-roe, and spawn on kelp.

Due to the decreased population, the Status Report states, the herring fishery in Prince William Sound has been closed for 13 of the 19 years since the spill and remains closed today.

In his introduction to the Status Report, Alaska Deputy Attorney General Craig Tillery writes, "Over the last 20 years, we have made significant progress in restoration of areas impacted by the spill: permanently protecting crucial habitat; increasing our knowledge of the marine ecosystem; and developing new tools for better management of these vital resources."

"Visitors to Prince William Sound and the North Gulf Coast of Alaska today again experience spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife and see little evidence of the spill. Yet the area has not fully recovered," writes Tillery. "In some areas, ExxonValdez oil still remains and is toxic. Some injured species have yet to recover to pre-spill levels."

"This long-term damage was not expected at the time of the spill and was only just starting to be recognized in 1999, at the 10th Anniversary."

"At that time, the majority of species injured by the spill were still struggling with low numbers, such as the depressed herring populations, but it was expected that the ecosystem would recover naturally over time," writes Tillery. "Now, in 2009, as we reach the end of the second decade, many of these areas and species of concern remain. As we learn more, the picture of recovery is more complicated than was first appreciated."

Click here to read the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council's 2009 Status Report, "Legacy of an Oil Spill 20 Years Later."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.

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