State, feds ponder pursuit of more claims for oil spill

State yet to decide if it will file other lawsuits

Posted: Thursday, October 02, 2003

ANCHORAGE - No decision has been made about pursuing additional claims against Exxon Mobil for damage in Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, state and federal legal officials said Wednesday.

A consent decree in damage lawsuits filed after the 1989 spill contains a reopener clause that allows the state and federal government to pursue other claims - up to $100 million - for injuries unknown when the settlement was reached in 1991.

Exxon already has agreed to pay $900 million for the cleanup from the 11 million gallon spill. The period for exercising the reopener for unpredicted injuries is Sept. 1, 2002-Sept. 1, 2006.

"There is no decision yet," said Craig Tillery, an assistant state attorney general in Anchorage. "There certainly is progress in making a decision."

The matter also is under review in the federal Department of Justice.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that newly released documents indicate that the spill continues to damage the sound and that the findings could be used to seek additional payments.

Exxon Mobil disagrees. Spokesman Tom Cirigliano said Prince William Sound is healthy and that plants and animals have returned to the site of the spill. The company and the settlement trustees, however, disagree over the definition of a healthy ecosystem, he said.

Exxon Mobil argues that recovery is defined as the presence of native plant and animal species "functioning normally," while the trustees define it in part as a return to pre-spill wildlife populations.

"That's not practical or accurate," Cirigliano said. "In some cases, they didn't have (pre-spill) numbers to begin with, and some species, like harbor seals, were declining well before the spill. They have continued the same rate of decline. Obviously it has nothing to do with the spill."

If the state or federal governments make a request for more money, "we will carefully evaluate what they come to us with, and we'll make a decision," Cirigliano said.

The Wall Street Journal reported that previously unreleased documents were made public following a freedom-of-information request by Rick Steiner, a marine biologist at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a frequent critic of the state's oil industry.

Among the documents were a June 12 memo by Molly McCammon, then executive director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. McCammon noted a rise in egg mortalities of pink salmon, a decline in survival of female harlequin ducks exposed to parts of the sound that remain polluted with oil, and continuing accumulation of oil in mussels and other invertebrate species.

Though pink salmon have since recovered, she said, unexpectedly high levels of spilled oil remain in the sound, posing a threat to ducks, mussels and sea otters.

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