More Lessons to Be Learned from the Exxon Valdez Spill


An ongoing legal issue from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, back in court this month, offers some stark reminders of how difficult it will be to make sure BP lives up to that PR-hyped pledge to “make it right” in the Gulf.

The issue may be legal, but it has policy overtones for anyone thinking that the federal government has been something less than assertive toward Big Oil in general and BP specifically.

The legal issue is before a U.S. District Court in Anchorage and involves an unpaid $92 million claim by the U.S. Justice Department and the state of Alaska for what officials there contend is obvious long-term environmental damage that was unexpected at the time of the settlement. The claim was made five years ago under a “reopener” provision of the governments’ 1991 civil settlement with Exxon. The oil company paid $900 million in that settlement.

Reuters reports that the governments said in 2006 that the additional money “…should go to projects to address unforeseen damages, including surprising amounts of oil lingering in Prince William Sound beaches.”

The odd thing is it’s not the state and federal agencies that are pushing the legal action now. It’s an activist who faults the government for being lax about getting its money. That’s one wake-up call for Gulf residents. The other is that the provision for re-opening the case might be ignored.

The activist rightly tells Reuters that “…if this reopener is not paid here and won’t be, then how in good conscience can the governments and the public and the courts settle the case down in the Gulf using a similar reopener provision?”

Let’s see: there’s still oil on beaches decades after the Valdez spill; lax government agencies continue to bow to Big Oil; and there’s been unyielding difficulty in regard to collecting money for damages – like devastated fisheries – that were unknown until years after the event.

And here’s what Exxon tells the Court in arguing it shouldn’t have to pay: “…the Spill reconfirmed what has long been known, that oil spills have acute dramatic effects but that they are essentially short-term events, with some isolated consequences that may persist for many years,” the company’s motion said.

Hey, is it just me or is that statement a complete contradiction? “Short-term events,” parts of which “persist for many years.” And “isolated consequences”? Right, like the collapse of the herring population, which to this day has not recovered?

The corporate doublespeak and pro-oil government attitude sure seem familiar. It also reminds me of the adage: “He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.” We’ll keep an eye on the Alaska case.

Read the detailed Reuters report here:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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