The Exxon Valdez oil tanker remains permanently barred from Prince William Sound after a federal court judge upheld provisions in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that prohibits the ship from returning to the waters it once fouled.
U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland ruled earlier this month that Exxon, whose shipping subsidiary is called SeaRiver Maritime, knew about the restrictive provision in 1991. That's the year the oil company signed papers to settle civil and criminal lawsuits from the state and federal governments following the 1989 spill of 11 million gallons of oil into the Sound.
Holland wrote that Exxon should have raised its concern before signing the settlement papers, in which the government dropped its claims, the oil company agreed to pay the governments $1 billion, and both sides agreed it was the end of litigation stemming from the spill.
''The release was sufficiently clear and SeaRiver knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waived its right to challenge'' the part of the act that prohibited the tanker from returning to the Sound, Holland wrote.
''When parties reach an amicable settlement, as SeaRiver and the government did, it reflects their decision to bargain for 'total peace' putting an end to the complex dispute and expensive litigation between the parties,'' he wrote.
SeaRiver Maritime spokesman Art Stephan said the company has not decided whether it will appeal Holland's ruling. However, the company filed a motion immediately after the June 4 ruling that asked the judge to reconsider or alter his decision.
''There has been no decision beyond going with the motion,'' he said.
Exxon's attorneys had argued that the clause in the act that prohibited the tanker's return was unconstitutional and was unfairly directed only at the former tanker, the Exxon Valdez, which has been renamed the SeaRiver Mediterranean. The ship has been operating in the Mediterranean Sea since 1990 and company officials said no decisions have been made about bringing the ship back to Alaska.
The Oil Pollution Act had been under consideration for 10 years when Exxon's tanker spilled its oil.
''The public outcry, in response to the Exxon Valdez spill and to other oil spills that also occurred that year, finally led to its enactment in 1990,'' Holland wrote.
Section 5007 is one of several in the law enacted specifically to protect the Sound. The clause says in part, ''tank vessels that have spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil into the marine environment after March 22, 1989, are prohibited from operating on the navigable waters of Prince William Sound.'' The Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989.
Holland pointed out that the clause was added during a meeting of a conference committee that was considering the final bill.
''This was contrary to the usual congressional procedure since new additions to a bill are not normally allowed in conference,'' Holland wrote. At the time the law was enacted, the Exxon Valdez was the only ship that fit the description. Since then, four other ships have joined the Exxon Valdez ''with this dubious distinction,'' Holland wrote. But the other ships were left inoperable or were not U.S. vessels, therefore, the Exxon Valdez ''is still the only ship to be barred'' from the Sound by the law.
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