Senate resolution calls on Exxon to pay up
JUNEAU – The clock is ticking on a statute of limitations to collect $92 million in damages from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Sen. Berta Gardner told the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday that it’s time for Exxon to honor a court settlement reached in 1991 when Exxon agreed to pay $900 million in damages.
The judge also tacked on what is known as a “reopener clause,” to cover $100 million in unforeseen damages.
Although the state and federal governments have tried to exercise this option to cover the ongoing costs of monitoring damage from the spill and wildlife restoration, Exxon has refused to pay up.
The company argues that the work is not remediation, but instead related to cleaning up the spill, an obligation it says it has already fulfilled.
Gardner has introduced Senate Joint Resolution 25, calling on the state and federal government to pursue what she calls a “final claim on Exxon.”
“Thank you Mr. Chairman and members of the committee for hearing this bill on today of all days,” Gardner said, whose testimony before the committee fell on the 25th anniversary of the spill, which fouled Prince William Sound with 11 million gallons of crude oil. Gardner called it a tragedy felt around the world.
Sen. John Coghill, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, weighed in on the timing of introducing SJR 25.
“I thought it was totally appropriate to say there’s still unfinished business yet to do,” Coghill said.
Gardner believes Exxon shouldn’t be let off the hook because it’ll set a bad precedent for other companies that want to develop oil or minerals in environmentally sensitive areas.
“The state of Alaska has a really strong interest in assuring ourselves, our nation and the world that we have high standards,” Gardner said.
Rick Steiner, a former University of Alaska professor who has been a longtime critic of Exxon and other oil companies, was expected to testify, but Coghill said he would be asked to speak at a later time – that Monday’s hearing on the date of the anniversary was more of an introduction to SJR 25.
Sen. Fred Dyson, a Judiciary Committee member, said he believes claims about the spill damage, made by Steiner and others have been exaggerated.
He said it’s inaccurate to give the impression the whole Sound was ruined by the spill.
“Most of the beaches in Prince William Sound were not oiled. The gyre took everything west and south,” Dyson said. “And there’s parts of the northwest Sound that never saw any oil.”
Noah Hanson, an aide to Gardner, testified about the slow rate of recovery from the spill.
“The Exxon Valdez Trustee Council concluded that 13 of 32 monitored fish and wildlife populations, habitats and resource services were recovered or very likely recovered, leaving 19 habitats yet to fully recover,” Hanson said.
It also hasn’t helped that the state and federal government are behind in research it promised on the long-term impacts of the spill.
Gardner urged the committee to push for the money before the deadline to file a claim expires on July 25, 2016.
“What’s happened thus far with the Exxon Valdez spill and the damages in Prince William Sound, is, we have not done all that we could,” Gardner said. “That effort is ongoing, and we want to make sure we don’t miss our opportunity to claim what we need and what was once already agreed to.”
Hanson summed up his testimony.
“Now that after 25 years, it is time to give Alaskans closure on this issue of long-term damage,” he said.
So far, fallout from the disaster seems to have no end, at least in the near future.