25 Years After Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Company Still Hasn’t Paid For Long-Term Environmental Damages

(Credit: AP Photo/Gary Stewart)

The long-term plan for rehabilitating damaged resources has yet to be implemented a full quarter century after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spewing more than 11 million gallons of crude oil into the surrounding ecosystem.

According to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the U.S. Justice Department and State of Alaska say they are still waiting for long overdue scientific studies before collecting a final $92 million claim to implement the recovery plan for unanticipated harm to fish, wildlife and habitat.

Cleaning up the Exxon Valdez disaster took four summers and cost approximately $2 billion, according to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. In 1991, Exxon reached a civil settlement with the U.S. government and the state of Alaska in which it agreed to pay $900 million in payments, a $25 million criminal fine and $100 million in restitution.

The plea agreement also contained a “reopener” window, during which governments could claim up to $100 million in additional payments from Exxon to restore resources that suffered a substantial loss or decline as a result of the oil spill and which were not foreseen at the time of the initial settlement.

In 1996, the federal government and the state of Alaska notified Exxon that, pursuant to the reopener, additional restoration would be necessary to address long-term environmental damages and clean up lingering oil, at an estimated cost of $92 million.

Fast-forward seven years, and ExxonMobil, the most profitable publicly traded company in the world, has yet to pay up — in fact, they’ve been fighting the claims all along. Last year, Exxon failed to persuade a federal judge to bar the U.S. and Alaskan governments from pursuing further damage claims related to the 1989 spill. In his order, U.S. District Judge H. Russell Holland wrote, “Exxon presently suffers no particular harm. Its business is not in any fashion disrupted or impeded because of the uncertainty of a claim by the governments.”

According to PEER documents, “the U.S. Justice Department and Alaska cited ‘unforeseen contracting issues,’ delays in ‘sample analysis’ and stalled peer reviews as reasons why they have not begun implementing its ‘multi-phase restoration project’ outlined back in 2006.”

As Ivy Fredrickson of the Ocean Conservancy explains, a major difficulty in requiring Exxon to pay for the ongoing damage to the affected ecosystem is that the government has struggled to meet the conditions of the reopener. The Exxon Valdez reopener stated that in order for a claim to be valid, “injury to the affected population, habitat, or species could not reasonably have been known nor could it reasonably have been anticipated by any Trustee from any information in the possession of or reasonably available to any Trustee on the Effective Date.”

Therefore, “by rejecting anything that could have reasonably been anticipated, the clause denies a reopener claim for anything but an injury that was unprecedented or wholly new to science … The result of the Exxon Valdez reopener is that Trustees were left with no recourse for injuries from the spill that became evident after settlement.”

Ultimately, no one really knows what the long-term impacts of large-scale oil spills will be. Following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, for instance, the region’s productive herring fishery suddenly collapsed four years after the spill occurred, and it has yet to recover.

In addition, oil has lingered in the ecosystem far longer than many predicted. A 2001 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study surveyed 96 sites along 8,000 miles of coastline and found that “a total area of approximately 20 acres of shoreline in Prince William Sound is still contaminated with oil. Oil was found at 58 percent of the 91 sites assessed and is estimated to have the linear equivalent of 5.8 km of contaminated shoreline.”

In 2010, the journal Nature explained that some researchers initially calculated that Exxon Valdez‘s oil would dissipate within years or even months or that it would quickly degrade or be washed away by high-pressure hoses. However, due to the natural geology of the environment, pockets of oil have remained, buried half a meter below the surface of some beaches.

Critics of the delay say the ongoing struggle to hold Exxon accountable for unanticipated environmental damages in Alaska offers clear lessons to be learned regarding the continuing process of determining BP’s long-term liability for the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, a spill that was 20 times larger than Exxon Valdez.

9 Responses to 25 Years After Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Company Still Hasn’t Paid For Long-Term Environmental Damages

  1. Fred says:

    The Union Carbide Bhopal disaster is another example of “refusal to pay”.

    It does little good to whine about any of this in print. The only effective response now is to shut down Exxon and Union Carbide altogether by any and all means possible.

    Irresponsible companies should not be permitted to exist.

    If we did that, it would not take long before responsibility was finally restored to company ethics.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    This has little to do with the specific language allowing release of the last $92 million. No legal case is airtight, and if a party has an unlimited budget and enough good attorneys- as Exxon certainly does- they will find a hole and win the ground war.

    We’ve seen it here in the Mojave, as batteries of attorneys successfully stalled solar development. The gas and coal companies won that one, at least for now.

  3. Marie says:

    And we are still subsidizing the oil companies?

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Another wonderfully instructive example of how the adversarial, ‘Common Law’ injustice system of the Anglosphere states is but a gigantic structure designed to advantage the rich and powerful at the expense of everybody else. The Western supremacists often abuse other states for not possessing ‘the Rule of Law’, yet their own jurisprudential systems are nothing but mechanisms that ensure elite rule, often by the simple device of blackmailing and intimidating the serfs into silence and acquiescence with the threat of financial ruin through coercive litigation. The infamous SLAPP suits, the notorious legal harassment of climate scientists, the grotesquely punitive sentences inflicted on activists, the infiltration of environmentalist groups by police provocateurs and spies, the ‘lawfare’ tactics more and more frequently employed by the rich and the direct suborning of politicians by corporate payola- it’s not really the ‘rule of law’ is it? More the good old ‘Golden Rule’- he who owns the gold makes the rules.

  5. Peter Flynn says:

    proof that united states too gutless and yellow to imprison crims in suits ;a very spineless nation

  6. Max1 says:

    Just another example of how a fascist nation operates… PROFITS over PEOPLE.

  7. Zimzone says:

    By law, corporations are now people.

    The fact they have no conscience has yet to be addressed.

  8. Dale says:

    “a major difficulty in requiring Exxon to pay for the ongoing damage to the affected ecosystem is that the government has struggled to meet the conditions of the reopener.”

    No mention of the current governor of Alaska’s old job? You don’t think he might be dragging his feet on this because he used to be a lobbyist for ExxonMobile?

    But seriously, $92 million is chicken feed. He got them a $2 BILLION per year tax break this year. (Working on repealing that by initiative.)

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    They have no pulse, ergo they are the zombies.