Exxon Mobil says it does not intend to spend any more money on claims or damages arising from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, according to a federal court document filed Friday.
Exxon, along with the state and federal governments, has been ordered to appear in court this week by a federal judge in response to a motion filed by environmental activist and longtime University of Alaska professor Rick Steiner.
Last month, Steiner convinced U.S. District Judge Russell Holland to hold a hearing on what's going on with the so-called "re-opener" provision of a previous settlement that would require Exxon to pay $92 million for restoration efforts if more problems arose out of the spill and oil continued to harm the environment.
But the governments never took any steps to collect the money and Steiner, who has been involved with the Exxon Valdez spill and its aftermath beginning with helping lead an effort by fishermen to keep oil from reaching sensitive habitat areas in 1989, decided the public has waited long enough and filed a legal action to force the issue.
The hearing is set for 10 a.m. Friday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage. Steiner will represent himself.
The state and federal governments filed opposition to Steiner's motion weeks ago. Government attorneys said the state had filed a restoration plan in 2006 but were still working on exactly what they thought needed to be done before seeking payment from Exxon under the re-opener.
In opposing Steiner's motion last week, Exxon said a 1991 settlement in the spill case that the re-opener stems from was intended to take care of all claims for damages. The re-opener was allowed only for "substantial damage inconceivable at the time of settlement," Exxon said, noting that it wasn't just to keep paying for sustained or permanent damage.
Exxon said it spent $2.3 billion on cleanup costs after the spill and paid more than $300 million to more than 11,000 Alaskans and businesses affected by the spill. In 1991, the settlement required the company to pay another $1 billion in resources damages and other remediation and clean up payments.
The re-opener allowed the governments to seek up to $100 million more for damages to habitat or species "that could not have been known or reasonably anticipated" in 1991. In 2006, the governments did propose a restoration plan costing about $92 million.
But Exxon is now protesting that plan, saying the kinds of damages identified under the re-opener are for things that were not surprising, but, in essence, just more of the same. For instance, the presence of lingering oil, which the government makes the basis of the re-opener, "is not hardly unexpected," the company says.
Exxon also argues that decades after the spill and five years after the governments submitted the proposed restoration plan, state and federal officials are still working on a "cost-effective restoration plan."
"In the nearly 22 years that have passed since the spill, Exxon Mobil has supported independent researchers who have studied Prince William Sound and the other areas affected by the spill," the motion says. "Those scientists have generated more than 600 conference presentations or publications in peer-reviewed journals. Based on that body of scientific evidence, and on the similar body of research generated by the state and federal governments and others, it is clear there have been no effects on the environment as a result of the spill" that would classify as inconceivable in 1991.
Also on Friday former Gov. Frank Murkowski, whose administration directed the state to file the re-opener, submitted a letter to the federal court saying that the case needs to be resolved, which is what Steiner is asking.
"Alaska deserves closure on this issue after 22 years," Murkowski wrote.
Steiner said Monday the upcoming hearing will likely be the only legal faceoff over long-term environmental damage. He says Exxon is arguing that the coastal environment has fully recovered but "Exxon's assertion stands in stark contrast to the extensive government science, which shows that most of the fish and wildlife populations, habitats, and resources services injured by the spill have yet to recover -- 22 years later."
He notes that the oil company also owes another $23 million in interest in addition to the $92 million which he believes the government should have asked for and received years ago.
Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com