A federal judge presiding over the latest litigation in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill has taken under advisement oral arguments on whether Exxon should to pay millions of dollars more for unforeseen damages from the Prince William Sound disaster.
The spill proved devastating to commercial fish harvesters, wildlife and others dependent on fish in that region.
Judge H. Russel Holland heard oral arguments in Anchorage on Nov. 15 from legal counsel for Exxon, the federal government and the state of Alaska.
Exxon has entered a motion asking the court to enforce a 1991 consent decree, relieving the oil giant from paying an additional $92 million to deal with environmental damages from the spill. Exxon argues that the original agreement made clear that parties to the lawsuit limited the reopener phase to restoration projects, which are different from cleanup projects.
Attorneys for the state and federal government argued that the words “cleanup” and “restoration” could be used interchangeably.
Exxon has already paid some $900 million in damages for cleanup costs, but the 1991 reopener decision allowed the government to reopen the case if it could show that problems remained.
State and federal government officials submitted a restoration plan in May of 2006 for more cleanup of residual oil on beaches in Prince William Sound, following with a demand for payment in August of 2006. Since then the governments have not pursued the matter and Exxon has not paid out any additional funds.
Marine biologist Rick Steiner, who had spent 14 years working on Prince William Sound, had filed an amicus brief asking that Exxon be ordered to pay the $92 million, plus about $25 million in interest.
Steiner also asked the court to grant the governments discretion in how best to use these monies in the best interest of full ecological recovery, and that the court issue guidance to other court regarding construction of future reopeners for unknown injury provisions in environmental consent decrees, to avoid problems that have plagued the Exxon Valdez reopener provision.
While the court denied his amicus brief, the judge can still order the requested relief, said Steiner.