With the 17th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill approaching, some lawmakers are calling on Alaska's governor to claim an additional $100 million in damages caused by the spill.
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A provision in the 1991 settlement agreement between Exxon Mobil Corp. and the federal and state governments says that Exxon Mobil may have to pay up to $100 million in unanticipated damages from the 1989 spill.
On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crashed into a reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil, the worst spill in the nation's history.
In the civil settlement, Exxon paid $900 million over a 10-year period ending in 2001. A "reopener" provision created a window from 2002 to 2006 in which the state and federal governments could claim up to an additional $100 million.
To claim the money, the governments would have to prove that a population, habitat or species had suffered loss or decline in the area of the spill, and that loss can be linked to the spill. Plus, the state and federal governments would have to prove the loss was not known or anticipated when the settlement was signed.
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That reopener provision in the settlement expires Sept. 1. The state and federal governments must file a claim 90 days before that date, June 2.
"With the anniversary of the spill, it just seems like the appropriate moment for the governor to stand up and remind folks that there are still some outstanding issues," said state Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage. "It doesn't guarantee that we'll get any money, but if we don't take the step, that $100 million is lost forever."
Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski and the U.S. Attorney's office have not yet decided whether to file a claim. A decision will be made no later than May, said Murkowski spokeswoman Becky Hultberg.
"Right now we're in the process of evaluating the science, working with federal agencies and discussing how to proceed," she said.
James Goeke, first assistant U.S. attorney for Alaska, would only say the state and the Department of Justice are studying their options.
Exxon Mobil did not return a call to its Texas headquarters for comment.
Nancy Bird, president and chief executive of the Prince William Sound Science Center, said two things justify the reopener: The Prince William Sound's Pacific herring population continues to be depressed and there is lingering oil in the region.
The center issued a resolution calling for any money received by a reopener claim to be used to pay for two long-term programs, both lasting 50 years or longer. One would study and monitor the long-term effects of lingering oil on the marine environment. The other would be for a herring research and restoration program.
Another shore cleanup to recover lingering oil could actually do more damage to the area, Bird said. That is why the center is advocating for the creation of an endowment to assess new techniques that may show better ways to remove the remaining oil, she said.
"You could go out and start digging up those beaches that remain heavily oiled and it would probably take longer for the environment to repair itself than to leave it alone," Bird said.
Bird said an argument can be made whether there is a direct link between the decline of herring in the sound and the Exxon Valdez spill, but she said no other fishery has been hurt the way that one has.
The region's herring fishery has been open just six of the past 17 years.
A draft of a study commissioned by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council says oil continues to linger along the Prince William Sound shores and at patchy locations along the Gulf of Alaska shoreline. The amount of oil still present is disputed, but the February study put the worst case scenario at 35 total acres.
Six different types of animals have been classified as not recovering, including herring, according to the study. Five species are recovering, along with intertidal communities, wilderness areas and sediments.
The herring decline cannot be blamed solely on the spill, the study says.
"There is little evidence linking the depressed herring population to residual effects from the spill, and it is likely that no single factor explains the population decline," it reads.
Michael Baffery, interim executive director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, declined to talk about the reopener provision
"The trustees and trustee council does not deal with the reopener issue," he said.