Exxon Valdez damages deadline approaching

Posted: Tuesday, May 30, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The deadline for government lawyers to file broad new damage claims against Exxon Mobil in the Prince William Sound oil spill is fast approaching.

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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.

That reopener provision in the settlement expires Sept. 1. The state and federal governments must file a claim 90 days before that date.

Alaska Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, both Republicans, tried this month to cut the process short by asking Exxon Mobil to voluntarily commit $100 million more to restoring the Sound, but the Texas-based company turned them down.

Exxon said it will follow the legal language in the original settlement, which requires them to pay only if a court agrees the damage was unexpected and the restoration projects narrowly defined.

Exxon Mobil said there are no grounds for claiming additional money.

"Is that oil causing any long-term impacts? Our studies would say no," said Exxon Mobil Corp. spokesman Mark Boudreaux.

But a federal study published this month said the buried oil could be contributing to the slow recovery of sea otters, sea ducks and other species using the intertidal area.

The draft study, prepared for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, also pointed to lingering concerns about a handful of species, from killer whales to clams. Most of them seem to be recovering slowly, the study said, and influences other than lingering oil could be affecting their numbers.

Gov. Frank Murkowski urged the governments last week to make a claim. The Anchorage Assembly passed a resolution Tuesday calling for governments to claim the entire $100 million. The state Legislature also passed a resolution calling for further claims, as did municipal governments from communities affected by the spill.

Federal and state lawyers are remaining tight-lipped about their intentions.

Environmental groups worry the governments do not plan to pursue the claims.

Trustees for Alaska attorney Justin Massey expressed that concern in a May 23 letter to state and federal attorney generals from eight environmental groups.

"If accurate, this suggests a lack of diligence that threatens to fall short of your responsibility to restore the natural resources damaged by the spill," the letter said.

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