Senior U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland last week signed off on the agreement by the State of Alaska, the United States and our friends at Exxon Mobil: the effort to use the re-opener and force Exxon Mobil to complete the cleanup of Prince William Sound has been abandoned.
The re-opener was a set of provisions in the court-approved settlement of the claims by the United States and the State of Alaska against Exxon. Basically, those provisions allowed the government to “re-open” the settlement and force Exxon to spend up to $100 million more in post-settlement years for mitigation and restoration projects to address environmental damages that weren’t apparent at the date of the 1991 settlement. The state and federal governments invoked the re-opener in 2006, seeking $92 million more from Exxon to identify and clean up lingering pockets of leftover Exxon oil that were still putting poisons into the ecosystem.
There were a number of flaws in the settlement, and many of them in the re-opener clause. Giving one of the world’s most powerful multinational corproations the right to dispute use of the re-opener was one. Another was the assumption that all of the environmental consequences of the Exxon Valdez disaster would be known in 2006. Research – funded in part by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council-funded studies – have shown salmon and herring embryos exposed to even very low levels of oil developed long-lasting cardiac defects. There is indisputably still crude oil in Prince William Sound; without much effort anyone can turn up contaminated soils. That would explain the post-spill Prince William Sound herring crash. But the re-opener, as interpreted by the court, doesn’t allow claims for discoveries made after 2006.
The government lawyers tried to explain it all away. The Anchorage Dispatch News quotes Bill Brighton, assistant chief of the U.S. Justice Department’s environmental enforcement section (and one of the federal attorneys who negotiated the 1991 settlement with Exxon) as saying, “There has to be an endpoint to even complex litigation. The reality is, are we going to keep a case open for multiple decades while science (continues) its process of improvements?”
WC thinks the question should be inverted. “Are we really going to let Exxon Mobil skate from real environmental damage because it can take a long time to appear?”
The answer is apparently, “Yes.”
And WC submits that’s wrong. Kate McLaughlin, Executive Director of Prince William Soundkeeper called the outcome “A true travesty of environmental justice, not just for Prince William Sound, but for the Nation.” Rick Steiner said “Abandoning the reopener is a really dark end to a very dark chapter in Alaska history.”