Court to hear arguments Friday on Exxon Valdez payment

$92 MILLION: Claim seeks money for more cleanup; oil giant says it owes zilch.

March 1, 2011 

Exxon Mobil Corp. says it has paid enough for the 1989 Alaska oil spill, but a judge will hear arguments Friday that the company still owes nearly $100 million to remove oil from the Prince William Sound shoreline.

Federal District Court Judge Russel Holland scheduled arguments in response to a court motion filed by Anchorage oceans activist Rick Steiner. At issue is a $92 million claim filed by the state and federal governments in 2006, arguing the oil is degrading too slowly and continues to harm wildlife. State and federal officials haven't taken further action to collect the money, and Steiner said he's trying to force the issue.

"It's gone on way too long," he said.

Exxon, meanwhile, argued in a court filing last week that it doesn't owe the money at all.

Exxon paid $900 million in restitution as part of a 1991 civil settlement over the Exxon Valdez case. But the settlement also had a clause allowing the state and federal governments to later claim up to $100 million more from Exxon if there were unforeseen damages from the spill. That's the money now under dispute.

The governments filed the claim right before the 2006 deadline for them to do so. "It is clear that populations and habitat within the oil spill area have suffered substantial and unanticipated injuries that are attributable to the Exxon Valdez oil spill," then-Alaska Attorney General David Marquez said at the time.

'NO FURTHER OBLIGATIONS'

Exxon disputed the need to pay the money in a court filing made in advance of Friday's hearing.

The company's lawyers said just a tiny amount of oil residues remain in isolated pockets of the Prince William Sound shoreline. The presence of such oil is "hardly unexpected," Exxon argues, and there's no justification for claiming damages from the spill that weren't foreseen at the time of the 1991 civil settlement.

Exxon also maintains that state and federal authorities missed the deadline to get the money. The company's lawyers argue the governments failed to include a proper plan for restoration projects in their 2006 claim.

"Thus, Exxon Mobil has no further obligations," said the company's court filing last week.

FRANK MURKOWSKI WEIGHS IN

Government lawyers have said they're waiting for studies on the remaining oil and the effectiveness of cleanup techniques before pursuing their claim for the Exxon money.

Federal lawyers didn't return a phone call Tuesday, but said in a January court filing that "the Governments have not sought to have the Court enforce (the claim) ... pending the outcome of those studies."

State and federal lawyers have been working together on the Exxon Valdez case.

"The state and federal governments are aligned on this issue, and will be laying out a position at Friday's hearing regarding further studies on potential remedial measures," state Department of Law spokesman Bill McAllister said in an e-mail.

The state doesn't want to proceed with a cleanup that doesn't work or harms the beaches, a lawyer representing the state said during a December interview.

Frank Murkowski, who was governor when the state filed the 2006 claim for the money, submitted a letter with the court this week saying it's time to resolve the matter.

"It is in the public interest that the governments move from continuing study to resolution as soon as possible. Alaska deserves closure on this issue after 22 years," Murkowski wrote.

PRESSURING THE GOVERNMENT

Steiner is asking the federal judge to order Exxon to pay the state and federal $92 million claim with interest, for a total of $115 million, with the money going to the government natural resource agencies to use for restoration.

Steiner, a retired University of Alaska marine science professor, was involved in the oil spill cleanup and has long worked with groups monitoring the oil industry.

He said the Alaska attorney general in 2006 noted the state had already been analyzing potential claims for seven years. So it's now been a dozen years, he said.

"That is excessive by anyone's judgment, and I think the governments should really be ashamed of their behavior on this," Steiner said.


Reach Sean Cockerham at scockerham@adn.com or 257-4344.

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