Judge won't force Exxon to pay for further oil spill cleanup

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

Alaska U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland ruled Monday against a request that he force Exxon Mobil Corp. to pay for the cleanup of oil left on the Prince William Sound shoreline from the 1989 tanker Valdez spill.

The request came from former University of Alaska marine science professor Rick Steiner, who filed a court motion to try and force resolution of the case. Steiner said he was frustrated because the state and federal governments filed a $92 million claim against Exxon in 2006 but never tried to collect the money.

Government lawyers said they're waiting for studies on the remaining oil and the effectiveness of cleanup techniques before pursuing the claim against Exxon. The oil company, meanwhile, says it doesn't have any obligation to pay.

Judge Holland last week expressed dissatisfaction with how long the case is taking, saying "it really is time to put this whole thing to bed." Holland also said in his Monday ruling that there's a public perception it's taken far too long.

But the judge concluded that doesn't justify him forcing a resolution at this point.

"Were the court to endeavor to require the parties to take action before they are prepared to do so because of its own perceptions or because of public pressure, the result could prejudice some party, and there is no way of knowing in advance who might suffer," Holland wrote. "The court urges the Governments and their trustees to proceed with all possible speed to complete studies that are underway and any necessary evaluation which they may require."

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

Steiner, an oceans activist who was involved in cleanup of the spill, argued at Friday's court hearing that the judge should force Exxon to pay the money immediately with interest, along with criminal fines. The judge ruled that Steiner didn't have standing to try and force a resolution, and declined to do so himself.

Steiner said after Monday's ruling that he thinks the "reopener" clause was an empty promise made in 1991 to gain public support for the settlement with Exxon.

"It was a profound and unconscionable betrayal of public trust. If the governments now will not aggressively pursue it, which they have been clear they will not, then what can the court, or a third party intervenor, do? ...The real victim here is Prince William Sound itself, and the rest of the injured environment," he said.

Government lawyers said they are "committed to doing good science," and that the result of studies on the oil could affect how much money they end up pursuing from Exxon.

Exxon says there's little oil remaining and it doesn't owe any more money.

The government lawyers and Exxon have had talks about a settlement, and the judge said in his Monday ruling that he wants a status report in September.

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

Exxon Valdez background