Judge to mull Exxon spill case for a week

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

A federal judge said at a hearing Friday he wanted another week to consider the question of whether Exxon Mobil needs to pay additional fines and restoration money over lingering oil in Prince William Sound from the 1989 rupture of the Exxon Valdez.

U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland had scheduled Friday's hearing in response to a court motion filed by Anchorage oceans activist Rick Steiner, who wants Exxon to pay more for the damage caused by the spill.

At issue is a $92 million claim filed by the state and federal governments in 2006, when they argued that the oil from the Exxon Valdez spill was degrading too slowly and continued to harm Prince William Sound wildlife. State and federal officials haven't taken further action to collect the money, and Steiner said he's trying to force the issue.

The judge said he would also like resolution.

"It really is time to put this whole thing to bed," Holland said.

Holland, though, said Steiner lacked standing to intervene in the case and attempt to force a resolution. Steiner called that decision irrelevant and asked the judge in court Friday to use his authority to order Exxon to immediately pay the $92 million for shoreline restoration, plus interest, and another $125 million in criminal fines.

"This unreasonable delay has compromised urgently needed restoration actions in the injured environment," argued Steiner, a former University of Alaska marine science professor.

The judge said he wasn't going to do anything Friday other than rule that Steiner couldn't file a brief in the case.

"What I do beyond that is what I need to think some about. And I will do that as expeditiously as I can, and you will hear further from me hopefully in another week or thereabout," the judge concluded.

The state and federal governments say they aren't moving to collect money from Exxon until studies are completed on what can be done about the lingering oil.

"We are committed to doing good science," said federal lawyer Michael Zevenbergen.

Exxon argued in a filing last week that there is little oil remaining along the shoreline and that it is not obligated to pay any more.

The lawyer representing the federal government indicated in court Friday that there have been discussions with Exxon about a possible settlement of the case.

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