Federal and state studies putting a dollar value on damage from the Exxon Valdez oil spill would be kept secret under a proposed settlement of the state's lawsuit against Exxon. Environmentalists, fishermen and lawmakers said that would keep the public from finding out if the state got a good deal.
According to Attorney General Charles Cole's latest public briefing on the subject, the settlement proposal with Exxon would allow for the release of scientific data but not the in-depth studies of the economic damage from the 1989 spill.
Earlier this month, Cole told reporters "there would be no reason" to release the economic information once the case was dropped. He told the legislature's House Judiciary Committee that since the studies are incomplete, it would be misleading to make them public.
Nonetheless, Gov. Walter Hickel has used them to justify his proposed $1.2 billion settlement with Exxon, saying the studies put the damages at $600 million.
Cole could not be reached Tuesday. He is expected to brief the legislature today on the month-old negotiations over settling the state's civil suit against Exxon.
The state and federal governments are spending millions of dollars to try to put a price on the damage done to Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. The information was to be used if the government lawsuits went to trial and a jury had to decide how much Exxon should pay for the spill.
The state and federal studies are separate and the two teams have not shared any information, according to Norman Meade, chief economist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Damage Assessment and Restoration Center in Maryland.
"We don't have any hard numbers yet," said Meade. He would not comment further except to say the studies are not complete.
The economic damage is being figured through a new and controversial method called contingent valuation, which uses surveys to put a price on resource values that can't be bought or sold, such as the enjoyment of nature or the desire to pass it on to future generations. The surveys ask people how much the lost resources are worth to them, and their answers are used to decide how much a polluter must pay for the damages.
The method, although embedded in federal law, has never been used in a trial like the one anticipated for the Exxon Valdez case.
The proposal to keep the economic data secret was criticized Tuesday as a way of stopping the public from finding out how good a deal the state made with Exxon.
"All we've been hearing is, "Trust us.' "Trust us' is the attitude that got us into this problem," said Riki Ott, a commercial fishermen and marine toxicologist. She is a founder of the Oil Reform Alliance, which pushes for stronger environmental laws.
"If they want us to trust them, they have to tell us all," she said.
Bob Adler, a senior attorney with the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said the studies should be considered public information. The group is one of many environmental organizations suing Exxon over the spill.
"It's a fundamental right-to-know issue," he said. "These studies were done with public dollars. Public resources were destroyed or damaged by the spill, and the public has a right to know the results of those studies."
Rep. Mike Navarre, D-Kenai, has introduced two resolutions in the House calling on state and federal officials to make the information public.
"Maybe they have good reasons for keeping it secret, maybe it would do more harm than good, but they need to tell us why," Navarre said.
The lawyer coordinating the hundreds of civil suits against Exxon said the scientific data, which Cole said would be public, is most important for the private plaintiffs.
But, attorney Lloyd Miller said, the Native village residents he represents in a class- action suit could be hurt if the economic studies are kept secret because "their claims are very closely aligned with the natural resource damage claims of the state and federal government."
University of Alaska biologist Rick Steiner, on leave while he works on spill-related issues, said the studies are likely to have a much larger dollar figure than the $1.2 billion that Hickel wants from Exxon. But he said that doesn't mean the state is getting a bad deal.
"Everybody has to give up something in a settlement," he said from Cordova. "If we have to settle for a lesser amount of money than we might have gotten 10 years down the line if we had gone to trial, that does not necessarily mean that a $1.2 billion settlement is a bad deal."