Federal and state officials agreed Monday to spend a chunk of the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill settlement money to help turn the university-operated Institute of Marine Science in Seward into a premier research, rehabilitation and visitors center. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council has yet to decide, however, exactly how much of the $900 million civil court settlement to spend on the project. The trustees want more information before they vote.
The center's proponents are asking trustees for $28 million to help build the proposed $46 million Alaska SeaLife Center. Construction would begin in mid-1995 and take two years to finish.
"What we need is a professional research institute to fill the gaps, not a Sea World or a Disneyland," said Jim Ayers, the council's executive director. "We are talking about a research institute to fill the gaps in research and monitoring as it relates to the spill area and the northern Pacific."
The plan is to expand the existing institute to fill voids not covered by the state's half-dozen existing marine research centers. Specifically, the Seward facility would focus on the study of seabirds and marine mammals. And the center would be a repository for marine science information, research and data.
When the proposal for the Alaska SeaLife Center was brought to the trustees, it looked more like a Disneyland than a research center because the plan focused on the visitors facilities and how the project could make money. That, in part, was because the planners were seeking money from the legislature at the same time. Lawmakers said the facility had to be self- supporting, according to Darryl Schaefermeyer, project manager for the SeaLife Center. Last year, the legislature gave the planners $12 million from the $50 million Exxon criminal settlement with the state.
The trustees told the center's advocates that the legal terms of the $900 million civil settlement prohibited them from funding a visitors' center. So SeaLife Center's proponents redrafted their proposal. They still plan a visitors center that will be connected to the research facilities, but the $8 million needed to build it will have to come from other sources.
The Seward plan was one of dozens of proposals up for consideration Monday when the trustees adopted a $31.6 million budget for fiscal year 1994, which began last October. The trustees have consistently lagged behind in approving annual operating budgets. Late last year they approved spending $5 million on a handful of studies and administrative costs in 1994, but postponed all other decisions until Monday's meeting.
On Monday, they adopted a plan to spend $26.6 million more. Most of that money $12 million won't be spent right away. It was earmarked for a reserve account to ensure there will be money for long-term research and restoration projects. This will be the first of annual installments to a reserve account.
The council decided to spend $9 million on fisheries research in Prince William Sound. About $1.5 million of that will go toward helping the ailing Prince William Sound Aquaculture Center, which is a salmon hatchery.
An additional $1 million will be spent on studying ongoing problems with Kenai River red salmon. An overescapement in the year of the spill may be to blame for a diminishing red salmon population.
About $1.2 million will be spent on negotiating, studying and setting priorities for land acquisitions in the spill area. The rest of the money will fund a handful of shoreline, archeology and subsistence studies.
So far, roughly $300 million of the civil settlement has been spent on research, on reimbursing the state and federal governments for oil cleanup costs, and on buying land on Afognak Island and around Kachemak Bay.
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