EDITORIAL: Resolution of damages necessary 25 years after Valdez

March 24 marked the 25th anniversary of the soiling of Alaska shores and waters by the oil of the Exxon Valdez.

The environmental disaster — those words fall so short of describing the carnage — recast how the nation looked at the transport of oil. Suddenly it was something to be concerned about.

Today we are still looking at how that oil, on that day 25 years ago, was being transported recklessly by a captain in a vessel type that was shown to be less than secure and without proper escort on a potentially risky route.

Advances in oil transport have been made. Many lessons have been learned. Progress has been made at restoring some of the damage caused to Prince William Sound’s shores, communities, fish and wildlife. But much work remains, according to researchers and government agencies.

Damage caused by the spill lingers, however, some of it discovered after Exxon Corp. reached a settlement with the state and federal governments in October 1991. Exxon agreed to pay a $900 million civil penalty, criminal restitution of $100 million and a fine of $25 million.

That 1991 agreement also included a clause known as the “Reopener for Unknown Injury.” This required Exxon to pay up to an additional $100 million as needed for restoration that “could not reasonably have been known, nor anticipated” at the time of settlement.”

The state in 2006, during the term of Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski, found that substantial additional damage had, in fact, occurred because of the spill. Later that year, the state and federal governments presented Exxon with a restoration plan and a request, under the reopener clause, for an additional payment of $92.2 million.

Exxon has declined to pay. Neither the state nor federal government has taken Exxon’s refusal to court to force payment, though the two sides have been arguing in court about the intent of the clause. Exxon argues that the $92 million the state wants is for cleanup work and that it is no longer responsible for cleanup.

Exxon in 2012 asked a judge to declare the governments’ request for additional funds a violation of the 1991 settlement, but the judge declined, saying the governments hadn’t presented a formal claim.

Meanwhile, implementation of the plan for restoration of the later-discovered damage is several years behind its planned start-up date.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on March 24 — certainly no coincidence that it falls on the 25th anniversary of the spill — [held] a hearing on a resolution asking the state Department of Law and the U.S. Department of Justice to file suit over Exxon’s non-payment.

Senate Joint Resolution 25, by Sen. Berta Gardner, D- Anchorage, also asks that the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council to immediately begin the additional restoration work by using existing funds.

Whether or not Exxon, now Exxon Mobil, is responsible under the 1991 reopener clause is a long-running bipartisan issue in need of resolution. Perhaps going to court will force all parties to come to a settlement.

03/26/2014 - 11:40am