Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Public Comment Requested in Exxon Valdez Decision

With a Hail Mary motion filed in US District Court in Anchorage, a marine conservation professor who has followed the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation is asking that public comment be ordered on the potential reopener claim.

The amicus curiae motion filed on Nov. 3 by Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska Fairbanks professor, notes that the court did not solicit public comment when the federal and state governments proposed a final disposition of the case.

This, said Steiner, constitutes a significant oversight, indeed a violation, of a previous court order. His motion urges the court to voluntarily vacate those government status reports delivered to the court in mid-October, and order the governments to conduct a comprehensive public comment process on the potential claim. The motion further asks that the court order that the Environmental Protection Agency be consulted on any proposed decision, and that the governments be ordered to report to the court by March 24, 2016 their final decision on the reopener claim, taking into account public comments received.

The Steiner motion stems from a status hearing held before US District Court Judge H. Russel Holland in Anchorage in mid-October, during which the governments said they had no further reason to seek further monetary claims totaling $92 million against Exxon for the March 24, 1989 oil spill disaster in Prince William Sound, as allowed under a special “reopener” provision in the 1991 settlement over the spill.

“It is evident that all concerned wish this historic case to be finally resolved, but clearly it must be resolved correctly,” Steiner said in his brief.

Although the governments said they do not intend to pursue further claims under the reopener clause, for unknown injury not noted at the time of the settlement.

The ability of the governments to make a reopener claim against Exxon still remains open at least until June 2016.

“Clearly, Steiner stated in the motion, “the public of the oil spill region deserve a chance to comment o this historic decision before it is finalized. This is what the court obviously intended in its April 17, 2015 order, rightfully so.”

While it is unclear whether public comment at this point would change the final government decision in the reopener case, it is clearly what the process requires before this historic case is finally resolved, he said.

The motion also notes court approved oversight functions of the EPA to advise and coordinate the long-term restoration of natural resources injured, lost or destroyed as a result of the Exxon spill. Not only did the EPA not provide consultations after 1991, but it is likely the EPA was not consulted regarding the federal decision on the reopener, and the motion further attempts to confirm that, Steiner said.

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