The state of Alaska should be forced to pay much of the damage and cleanup costs from the Prince William Sound oil spill, Exxon Corp. said in a lawsuit filed Monday in Anchorage Superior Court.
Contrary to written agreements, the suit charges, the state opposed the use of chemical dispersants in the hours immediately after the 11milliongallon spill, thus causing the Coast Guard to delay approval of dispersant use until the weather changed and drove spilled oil toward beaches and animals that otherwise would have been spared.
"The state knew or should have known that its vigorous and active opposition to the use of dispersants would cause the Coast Guard to delay granting permission for the use of dispersants," says the complaint, which was filed as a countersuit to a state suit filed in August against Exxon and Alyeska Pipeline Service.
The state's interference means it is responsible for much of the spill damage and should be forced to reimburse Exxon for an unspecified amount of money paid out by the company in claims, the suit says.
The suit doesn't say that, according to testimony to the National Transportation and Safety Board, Exxon and Alyeska didn't have enough dispersants on hand on March 24 to fight a big spill or any planes to drop it on the oil. And it doesn't mention the continuing debate over whether dispersants would have worked on the calm water that prevailed for two days after the spill.
Exxon maintains that immediate use of chemicals to break oil into droplets was a necessary first step in the oilspill contingency plan approved by the state.
Dennis Kelso, state commissioner of environmental conservation, said Monday that the state did not oppose the use of dispersants in the area described by Exxon, and did not renege on any agreements. And regardless of the state's position, the industry hadn't stockpiled enough dispersant in southcentral Alaska to do any good, he told The Associated Press.
"Exxon wasn't prepared to use (dispersant) and now they're trying to rewrite the history of the spill and make it appear that someone else was the problem."
The state's suit, which prompted Monday's response, charges that Exxon and Alyeska were negligent in the March 24 wreck of the Exxon Valdez, and that the oil industry misrepresented its ability to deal with a major spill in Prince William Sound.
Kelso said he had not yet seen the suit, but that it appeared to be an effort to mislead the public about the oil industry's lack of preparedness for a major spill.
Exxon said Coast Guard indecisiveness, caused by the state reneging on contingency plans it had previously approved, made the spill much worse than it had to be. Before the spill state and federal regulators agreed that, at the discretion of the Coast Guard, dispersant could be used in the central part of Prince William Sound without further state consultation.
The state agreed to preapprove dispersant use expressly to avoid a timeconsuming debate of the issue after a spill. Such a debate "would cause unnecessary delays and would greatly complicate the problem of treating and containing a spill while increasing the risk of environmental and ecological damage," Exxon said in its suit.
On the morning of March 24, when Alyeska asked for permission to use dispersants, the Coast Guard ordered that the chemicals be tested before being applied to the spreading slick in a wholesale manner, a decision Exxon Shipping Co. President Frank Iarossi endorsed at a press conference the next day.
On the evening of March 26, the Coast Guard authorized use of the chemicals, but by that time it was too dark to begin operations, Exxon said in its suit. During the night, a storm blew much of the oil out of the targeted zone, the company said.
"It was a foreseeable consequence of the state's preventing the timely use of dispersants that much more oil would wash onto beaches, shorelines and islands and into intertidal and estuarine areas," the suit says. The company said it also was foreseeable that spilled oil would emulsify, complicating the response and compounding environmental damage.