Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. agreed Tuesday to pay $98 million to settle claims by thousands of Alaska Natives, commercial fishermen, business owners and others who were harmed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The settlement, which state and federal courts must approve, would resolve all spill-related legal claims against the company that operates the trans- Alaska pipeline.
"Alyeska is seeking to buy peace with the world as far as the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation is concerned," said Lloyd Miller, an attorney who represents Native villagers and served as liaison for all the parties suing over the spill.
The agreement does not settle claims against Exxon, and those lawsuits are scheduled for trial in federal court next April and in state court next June.
"Exxon is now witnessing a very substantial settlement," Miller said. "The case is not going away. A defendant that is never alleged to have shouldered the bulk of the blame is paying $100 million. It will demonstrate for Exxon the gravity of the litigation."
The tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound on March 23, 1989, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil. It was the nation's largest oil spill. Some 4,000 fishermen, landowners, cannery workers, businesses, cities and Natives sued the oil giant, its shipping subsidiary and Alyeska. An estimated 30,000 to 60,000 other parties are represented by a class action suit.
In settling the claims, Alyeska does not admit wrongdoing.
"Alyeska acknowledges no liability in this settlement," company spokeswoman Marnie Isaacs said.
According to a written agreement, the parties agreed to the settlement to avoid "the costs and risks of further litigation." The $98 million is meant to compensate the plaintiffs and is not punishment for Alyeska's role in the spill.
Miller said payments may range from a few hundred dollars to $5 million to be paid to Chugach Alaska Corp., the Native corporation that is the largest landowner in the spill region.
Copies of Alyeska's settlement offer will be sent to plaintiffs and a hearing scheduled within the next two months to decide whether to recommend it for court approval.
The settlement must be approved by Judge Brian Shortell, who oversees Exxon oil spill litigation in state Superior Court, and Judge H. Russel Holland, who handles the litigation in U.S. District Court.
Court approval is expected to take two to three months, and individuals should see money by the end of the year, according to attorneys in the case.
Serious settlement talks between Alyeska and the plaintiffs began about three weeks ago, said Dave Oesting, an Anchorage lawyer who represents fishermen and landowners, and who helped negotiate the deal.
Oesting said he believes the settlement is a good one, and sets a costly precedent for Exxon.
"I think it establishes a relatively high baseline . . . for what can be recovered from Exxon," he said. "It was their activity and wrongdoing that put this oil in the water."
Elenore McMullen, chief for the Native village of Port Graham on Kachemak Bay, said her community likely will support the deal.
"I think it's a fair settlement that's going to afford us some opportunity for healing," she said. "This oil spill has gone on and on unresolved for so long now we have to get it behind us."
Ken Adams, a commercial fisherman from Cordova, agreed that some sort of resolution was overdue.
"There are a lot of people that are seriously hurting," he said. "(The settlement) may be a Band-Aid, but it may alleviate some of the immediate hardship."
But lawyer Robert Stoll, who represents a number of municipalities and about 1,000 fishermen, most on Kodiak Island, said he doesn't like the offer.
He refused to be specific about his objections, but said "98 million dollars doesn't pay for compensatory damages."
Stoll said he hoped a better settlement could be worked out "or we go to trial."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.