A longtime Alaska activist asked a federal judge this week to force Exxon Mobil Corp. to pay millions requested by state and federal governments four years ago to remove oil that persists on beaches from the company's 1989 tanker spill in Prince William Sound.
The governments say the oil is degrading too slowly and continues to harm wildlife. However, since filing their joint $92 million claim in 2006, they haven't taken further steps to collect the cleanup money from Exxon.
"The story here is the mess and the lack of action," said the activist, Rick Steiner, who filed his court motion as an interested party to the governments' original legal settlement with Exxon in 1991. The governments' $900 million settlement reached 19 years ago was for resource damages caused by the massive spill, which killed thousands of birds and otters and hundreds of seals, eagles and other marine mammals.
This week, federal District Court Judge Russel Holland added Steiner as a party to the case. Steiner helped organize Alaska fishermen's emergency response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and has worked for decades with citizen groups monitoring the oil industry.
The state and federal government have not responded yet to Steiner's motion. An Exxon spokeswoman said Thursday that it has "no merit."
The basis of Steiner's request is the 1991 settlement's "reopener" clause. This allowed the governments to claim an additional $100 million from Exxon later if there were unforeseen damages from the spill. Under pressure from Steiner and many others in Alaska, the governments filed for $92 million from Exxon in 2006.
But Exxon has long disputed the scientific studies that say wildlife is still harmed by residual oil on the beaches. The company says its own studies show otherwise.
A state attorney said Thursday the state doesn't plan to take further action on its reopener claim until it receives additional information on the effectiveness of cleanup techniques for residual oil. Those studies haven't begun yet.
In his motion, Steiner said he fears the governments won't collect the reopener money without prodding from Judge Holland.
He worried about the delay's impact on species that have not recovered. And, he said, it sets a bad precedent for a similar reopener provision that could be included in civil litigation over BP's Gulf of Mexico drill rig explosion and massive leak last summer.
"I'm advising the people down there to be careful about a reopener," Steiner said Thursday.
Craig Tillery, a state attorney, said the state is waiting for results from a pilot study on possible cleanup measures for the beaches.
He was referring to upcoming work overseen by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which administers funds from the $900 million settlement to pay for oil-spill research, monitoring and restoration projects.
The council plans to fund research projects next year on the feasibility of removing lingering oil from Prince William Sound beaches. Findings must be presented to the council in the first part of 2012. The council is still accepting bids from researchers.
Tillery said Thursday that his impression that Exxon wants "to see it demonstrated that there's a reason to do something, that there is something you can do."
He said the state doesn't disagree with that reasoning. The state doesn't want to proceed with a cleanup that doesn't work or causes harm to the beaches, he said.
Steiner said he is skeptical that the governments ever intended to press for payment of their claim and undertake the cleanup work.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.