Senate panel hears from Alaskans on oil spill damages

Erika Bolstad

WASHINGTON -- A Senate committee on Tuesday looked to Alaskans to help understand how to use the law to better capture some of the hidden damages people in the Gulf of Mexico might suffer in the years following an oil spill.

Some of those damages are difficult to quantify, said Brian O'Neill, one of the attorneys who spent two decades shepherding through the federal courts the lawsuit fishermen and business owners filed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound.

The collapse of the herring fishery, for example, couldn't be fully anticipated until nearly a decade after 11 million gallons of oil spilled into the sound, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. It's difficult too to measure the long-term mental health effects of waiting two decades for the litigation against the oil giant to be resolved, said O'Neill, a Minnesota lawyer who led the case against Exxon Mobil.

But even as BP works to permanently cap its runaway oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, there are many lessons to be learned from the 1989 oil spill in Alaska, said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who chaired Tuesday's meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Exxon, she warned, "used every legal trick in the book" to prolong the litigation against the company and postpone paying punitive damages.

"While BP's executives sound outraged and contrite now, who's to say that won't change in two to three years?" Klobuchar said. "In the immediate aftermath of Exxon Valdez, Exxon's top executives were publicly repentant. But once they were behind the courtroom doors, they sang a very different tune."

O'Neill told the committee that the compensation structure -- such as the fund established by BP last month after negotiations with the White House -- needs to address people's immediate needs. But it also needs to be flexible enough to help compensate people for long-term losses, such as if a fishery never recovers, he said. It might be optimistic for the administrator of the $20 billion BP compensation fund, Kenneth Feinberg, to expect to have all claims paid in just a few years, O'Neill said.

"The inability to know the impacts of the spill are inherent in oil spills," O'Neill said. "In three or four years, you're still not going to know what the impact of the spill is."

It took 15 years for Cordova to recover economically, noted Joe Banta, a native of the town who now works as a project manager with the Prince William Sound Citizens' Regional Advisory Council, an independent group that is funded by the industry but serves as a watchdog on behalf of oil patch communities.

"Our hearts go out to the folks down there," he said of the Gulf of Mexico. "We can definitely relate to that, unfortunately."

Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the committee, said he believed that the Oil Pollution Act enacted by Congress in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez had been a success -- or at least better than having nothing. But the accident never should have happened, Sessions said, and he'd like to see legislation that puts "great pressure" on responsible parties to be "deeply financially committed to safety on the rig."

He said he was pleased with the recent pledge by four large oil companies -- Exxon Mobil, Conoco Phillips, Shell and Chevron -- to devote $250 million each to have deepwater response equipment on standby for use in an emergency. But it should have been in place long ago, Sessions said.

"Even though the chances for such a blowout were small, it was always possible," Sessions said. "It would have been a few pennies in the scheme of the overall size of this whole industry to have equipment sitting on the dock ready to respond within hours of this disaster."

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, also testified, and urged the Senate committee to consider regional citizens' advisory councils like the one Banta represents. Those committees aren't afraid to speak up when they believe the industry is headed astray, said Begich, who introduced legislation that would create such a committee in the Arctic. Many scars remain in Alaska, Begich said, and it's important that those hurt by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and its aftermath "don't suffer the same injustices experienced by Alaskans."

"One truth rises above all others," he said. "We must be committed to paying the price of vigilance, because the price of complacency is too high."

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