As the 20th anniversary of the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill dawned March 24, the federal and Alaska state governments have yet to collect all that the oil company agreed to pay. A final $92 million claim for harm to wildlife, habitat and subsistence users filed in 2006 has languished ever since.
In 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled over 11 million gallons of crude oil on the Alaska coast, causing an estimated $15 billion in damages. The 1991 settlement following the guilty plea by Exxon Corporation (now ExxonMobil) 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. On August 31, 2006, the federal and state governments jointly submitted a demand for ExxonMobil to pay $92 million, together with a restoration plan.
After submission of what was called the “reopener” claim, ExxonMobil had 90 days to pay or respond. Yet the claim sat unsatisfied, as neither the Bush nor the Palin administrations took any action to collect.
Today, Professor Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor who has intensively monitored conservation issues relating to the spill, and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) sent a letter to both US Attorney General Eric Holder and Alaska Acting Attorney General Richard Svobodny asking them to act immediately to collect the overdue claim.
According to the joint-federal restoration plan presented in 2006, the funds would be used to address:
• Presence of substantial subsurface pockets of oil;
• Effects of continuing toxicity of oil still in the environment; and
• 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 Professor 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, 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,” stated PEER executive director Jeff Ruch. “At this moment, the $92 million payment would be a corporate-financed stimulus package, giving taxpayers a welcome break.” (PEER, March 23)