The state of Alaska filed its longawaited lawsuit Tuesday against Exxon and the owners of the transAlaska pipeline, charging they grossly deceived the public about their ability to move crude oil safely, or to clean it up when they failed.
As a trustee for the entire population of Alaska, the state is seeking yettobe determined damages for the environmental, economic and social harm caused by the March 24 grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound. It is also seeking additional monetary punishment for the defendants' "intentional and negligent" actions before and after the 11milliongallon oil spill, the nation's worst tanker disaster. In announcing the suit in Juneau, Robert LeResche, the state's oilspill coordinator, said a final judgment could be in the "multibillions" of dollars.
The 42page complaint was filed in Superior Court in Anchorage and is the product of five months of investigation. It names three Exxon corporate entities among the defendants, but says that the parent company, Exxon Corp., should be held ultimately responsible.
Exxon Corp. said last month in letters to state and federal officials that it couldn't be held liable for damages to natural resources that exceed the value of its investment in the wholly owned Exxon Shipping Co., the owner of the Exxon Valdez. Exxon didn't disclose the value of its stake.
The lawsuit paints a horizontohorizon landscape of injury inflicted on Alaska by Exxon, Alyeska Pipeline and the owner companies: from the public and private economy to education and subsistence losses, from polluted air to contaminated archeological remains, from revenue and tax losses to increased government expenditures, from hardtodefine environmental damages and the intrinsic value of lost life and ecological systems to the cost of restoring Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska.
The state is also demanding compensation for the "emotional distress" suffered by its people "from having witnessed the destruction of the environment in which they live and work and having their livelihoods threatened and their personal and family lives disrupted." The spill has caused increased state expenses for social services and mental health, the suit said.
Exxon officials declined to answer questions about specific issues raised by the suit. In a prepared statement, the company said: "We haven't seen the complaint, but it appears to completely disregard the fact that Exxon's response to the accident has been massive and responsible."
Exxon said its goal is to "leave the water and shorelines in an environmentally stable condition such that animals, birds and fish are not harmed and no restrictions on commercial use or subsistence hunting or fishing are necessary. Without reading the complaint we are not able to comment on the specific charges; however, we will defend ourselves vigorously against the state's lawsuit."
From the beginning of pipeline planning in the early 1970s, the lawsuit said, the state and its people relied on the assurances of the oil industry that concerns about safety and the environment were in the forefront.
"The areas through which oil is transported are considered to be among the last true wilderness areas in the United States, and are renowned for their beauty and natural resources. The defendants knew then, and know now, that many Alaskans . . . depend on these areas for their livelihood. Other Alaskans use these areas for recreational activities."
To win permits to build and operate the pipeline and the Valdez terminal, Exxon and the other oil companies promised to take all action necessary to ensure a major oil spill would not occur, the suit said. "They further represented that they would utilize the best available oilspill containment and cleanup technology and that, if an oil spill did occur, they would be able to contain and clean up the oil spill."
In fact, the state charged, on March 24 the opposite occurred.
"Defendants' inability to respond to the oil spill was due in large part to defendants' conscious, deliberate, negligent and reckless decisions to save money by reducing manpower, training, equipment and maintenance of equipment below those levels which defendants knew, or should have known, were necessary to respond to a major oil spill."
The state blamed Exxon, in particular, for penny pinching on crew size, leaving the sailors aboard the Exxon Valdez fatigued and unalert. The company also failed to take steps against the tanker captain, Joseph Hazelwood, who had a history of alcoholism.
Two distinct oil spills occurred in connection with the grounding, the state charged. The first was when the ship ran aground on Bligh Reef, and the second occurred when Hazelwood attempted to motor the ship off the reef with a huge mountain of rock poking through its hull.
The lawsuit also raises the issue of protective double hulls, which the federal government ruled were not necessary for the Valdez merchant fleet. The suit claims that Exxon was negligent in building ships with only one hull and that it should have known that singlehull ships were unsafe for the trade.
It also recites the welldocumented litany of failure of the part of Alyeska and Exxon to contain and mop up the spill during the first 48 hours.