Exxon Valdez Case Closed Despite Lingering Oil

“Reopener” Claims Dropped by the State and Federal Governments

Nov 11, 2015
Lisa Oakley
Aerial view of the Exxon Valdez. NOAA Photo

Aerial view of the Exxon Valdez. NOAA Photo

The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was the largest oil spill to have occurred in US waters, losing that dubious distinction only in 2010 when British Petroleum’s well blowout caused the Deepwater Horizon Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Exxon Valdez was carrying 55 million gallons of oil, and the disaster killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds, thousands of sea otters, and impacted salmon and herring fisheries in Prince William Sound.

The 1991 Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement included a provision to reopen the case by September 2006 to address unforeseeable substantial losses or fish stock declines as a result of the spill. The State of Alaska and US Department of Justice filed a “reopener” claim for $92 million in restoration projects by that deadline. That claim has now been dropped by the State and Federal governments, permanently closing the Exxon Valdez litigation.

Workers scrub a beach in Prince William Sound. NOAA Photo.

Worker scrub a beach in Prince William Sound. NOAA Photo.

It was determined, by both governments, that cleaning up the remaining pockets of oil would not do much good and did not require the additional penalty. Although there is $200 million still available for restoration projects through the original settlement, the additional $92 million could have been used for habitat conservation and ongoing fisheries studies.

Many of our allies in Prince William Sound and Alaska conservationists were disappointed that our state and federal governments dropped this final claim in this historic case. For many, the 1989 spill of 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s pristine waters will never be forgotten or over. Twenty-six years later, it is still considered the most damaging oil spill ever. The single-hulled Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef spilling its oily contents into the remote, rugged, and biologically rich waters of Prince William Sound just at the start of spring. In the private civil case, fishermen, land, and business owners sought restitution from Exxon, but many ended up only receiving pennies on the dollar for their losses after more than a decade of litigation, leaving a bitter taste on top of the lasting environmental harm caused by the spill.

You don't have to dig deep to still find oil on some beaches in Prince William Sound as seen in this photo taken in 2011. NOAA Photo.

You don’t have to dig deep to still find oil on some beaches in Prince William Sound as seen in this photo taken in 2011. NOAA Photo.

Trustees for Alaska and many others fought for the statutory and regulatory changes in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

And Exxon continued to muddy the waters with junk science that made making a case for unforeseen environmental damages difficult to impossible. The failure of the State of Alaska and the US Government to seek full accountability from Exxon for this disaster highlights the continuing need for giving citizens a stronger voice in regulatory and enforcement proceedings.

Alaska was forever changed by the mistakes made the fateful night of March 24, 1989. Lives were changed, wildlife and fish were killed, species populations were harmed, and trust was broken. We wonder if we’ve truly learned the lessons from what happened. What if a similar disaster, even a fraction of this magnitude, were to happen in our Arctic waters or in the headwaters of the world’s premiere salmon fishery?

For more information:

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council‘s website has lots of information about the spill, the clean-up, the settlement and reopener, and scientific reports on the status of species.

Articles in the Alaska Dispatch News:

June 14, 2015: A quarter-century later, recalling the widespread woe of Exxon Valdez

October 15, 2015: Exxon Valdez oil spill saga reaches anticlimactic end in federal court

October 15, 2015: Exxon Valdez timeline

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