Historic Exxon Valdez spill documents to be made available to the public

Federal grant will help sort huge oil spill archive, making it available outside Alaska as well
Project Director Larry Hibpshman and Archivist Sara Bornstein with the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill litigation records boxes at a Alaska State Archives facility in Juneau. Photo by Chris Hieb/Alaska State Archives

Alaska accumulated a massive trove of data in its long fight with Exxon Mobil Corp. following the company’s then-record oil spill in Prince William Sound.

Now, with help from the National Archives, the Alaska State Archives will be making that information available to scholars, litigants, descendants, or anybody else who wants to view the source data from the event that consumed the state’s attention for a decade.

“The Exxon Valdez oil spill is a historic event of worldwide importance,” said Larry Hibpshman, project manager for the Archives who will be working to make the records available worldwide, and to future generations.

But it won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, he said.

The records already in Juneau amount to 3,200 cubic feet, he said, with that much or more in storage in Anchorage, and possibly more still in agency files.

Such records tend to tally about 3,000 pages to the cubic foot, he said.

“It’s millions and millions and millions of pages,” said Hibpshman, a professional archivist who has worked with large projects before, though not one this large.

The National Archives’ National Historical Publications and Records Commission will enable the state to hire two full-time professional archivists for two years, Hibpshman said.

“What we will do first is appraise the collection, determine what is of permanent value, and that will including anything that’s needed for future reference,” he said.

Many of the records can actually just be thrown out. They are expecting that nearly of 90 percent of what’s there doesn’t need to be saved, he said.

“We expect, by the time we are done, to winnow out all but 10 or 15 percent” of the records, he said.

The records include voluminous amounts of discovery obtained from Exxon and other parties in the case, including depositions, scientific documents and tremendous amounts of legal filings, Hibpshman said.

“A lot of what we eliminate will be duplicates,” he said. “Being lawyers, they thought everything needed to be copied over and over again.”

Then they’ll weed out the stuff that just isn’t very important. To help with that, an Oversight Task Force of seven Alaskans, including Craig Tillery, the state’s lead oil spill litigation attorney, and former Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Kurt Fredriksson will help with advice on what should be kept.

If the project determines a record would “enrich historic knowledge” it will go into the collection, he said.

The bulk of the records are on paper, but they also include microfiche, audio and visual media, and some electronic records.

The records to be sorted don’t include actual items, such as oil samples or dead otters, he said, but there are likely scientific studies and expert testimony providing the same info.

A key early part of the process is creating “finding aides,” the beginning of the indexing system that will help organize the documents and eventually make them available through the internet.

The documents themselves won’t be available, Hibpshman said, but will be able to be looked up and obtained from the Archives.

At one point the Alaska Department of Law had an electronic database for its records, but that appears to no longer exist, he said.

Hibpshman said the grant requires the work to be done by Sept. 30, 2013, and he expects to meet the deadline.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.


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