Friday, October 16, 2015

Alaska, DOJ End Exxon Valdez Litigation

By Mark Edward Nero

On Oct. 15, the US and Alaska governments dropped their remaining legal claims against Exxon Mobil Corp regarding the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, saying wildlife affected by the disaster have sufficiently recovered.

The US Department of Justice and the Alaska Department of Law said they’re bringing to a close the federal and state judicial actions against ExxonMobil Corp. because Alaska harlequin ducks and sea otters thought in 2006 to have been impacted by lingering subsurface oil have recovered to pre-spill population levels.

“Scientists have concluded that exposure to the subsurface oil is no longer biologically significant to these species,” the DOJ said in a prepared statement. “Accordingly, the governments have decided to withdraw their 2006 request to Exxon to fund bio-restoration of subsurface lingering oil patches.”

The March 1989 grounding of the tanker vessel Exxon Valdez on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound spilled nearly 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil that ultimately contaminated about 1,500 miles of Alaska’s coastline.

It affected three national parks, four national wildlife refuges, a national forest, five state parks, four state critical habitat areas, a state game sanctuary and killed enormous numbers of birds, marine mammals and fish and disrupted the lives and livelihoods of Alaskans who rely on those resources.

On Oct. 8, 1991, a US District Court judge approved both a plea agreement resolving criminal charges against Exxon and a settlement agreement between Exxon and the United States and the State of Alaska resolving all civil claims pertaining to the spill.

Under the plea agreement, the company paid $125 million for a criminal fine and restitution. The settlement required Exxon to pay the governments $900 million over 10 years to reimburse past costs and fund the restoration of injured natural resources.

One unresolved aspect of the 1991 settlement had been a provision entitled “Reopener for Unknown Injury” that allowed the two governments to seek up to an additional $100 million if they later found substantial losses or declines in populations, habitats or species that could not have been anticipated at the time of the settlement.

“Although we will not be pursuing Exxon for additional damages, our decision today does not close the book on lingering oil,” Alaska Attorney General Craig Richards said. “We are fortunate to have alternatives for dealing with this issue that can be undertaken without the constraints of the Reopener language.”