Valdez: The Damage Persists, 17 Years Later

During the next few weeks, Alaskans have one last chance to demand more money from ExxonMobil to compensate the state for damage caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Even after 17 years, anger — and oil — still persist in Alaska.

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It's been 17 years since the tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. It was the worse oil spill in the nation's history. Exxon has already paid 900 million dollars in compensation for damage to the Sound. But that settlement allowed the government to seek another 100 million if very specific circumstances about unexpected harm were met. The deadline for filing that claim is nearing and the state is getting an earful about long term damage. As Elizabeth Arnold reports, even after 17 years, anger and oil still persist.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD reporting:

It's called the reopener for unknown damage provision and its reopened some old wounds here in Alaska. A series of hearings over the last two weeks brought scientists, conservationists, native leaders and fishermen to the microphone as the state assessed whether Exxon should pay still more.

Evan Beedle of Cordova summed up the tone of the testimony.

Mr. EVAN BEEDLE (Alaskan Fisherman): Exxon's been BS-ing everybody for long enough. We're just fishermen. But it's a way of life. It's been destroyed.

ARNOLD: Not only has Beedles lucrative herring fishery been shut down for all of six of the last 17 years, oil is still present enough just below the surface of beaches that a group of high school students easily collected jars of it to send to Congress on last month's anniversary of the spill.

Kate McLaughlin lives in a cabin on Latouche Island in the Sound.

Ms. KATE MCLAUGHLIN (Latouche Island Resident): I have a two-year-old son. I sure would love to take my son down to the beach and have him dig in the sand and eat some mussels. However, that's not going to happen. I can walk two miles up the beach, kick a rock with my foot and kick up oil.

ARNOLD: In short, Exxon is not well loved in a state that for the most part loves oil. Despite 36 billion dollars in profits last year, Exxon has steadfastly refused to pay a nickel in a different lawsuit filed at the time of the spill by landowners, fishermen and native villages seeking punitive damages. The jury ordered Exxon to pay 4.5 billion in the suit. Exxon has appealed that decision three times. Exxon spokesman Mark Boudreaux says these punitive damages are a separate matter. He says the company would honor the terms of the settlement that covers damage to natural resources if a legitimate claim was made.

Mr. MARK BOUDREAUX (Exxon Spokesman): To date no claim has been submitted and a reopener claim could be put forth only if it's been demonstrated based on science that the conditions of the settlement agreement have been met.

ARNOLD: Those conditions require the claim be tied to specific projects to restore a loss or decline of habitats, species or population not anticipated at the time of settlement in 1991. Exxon says no claim can be made that meets those terms. The company believes the Sound is completely recovered.

Mr. BOUDREAUX: It is. There've been 350 peer reviewed studies since that we believe resoundingly demonstrate the recovery of Prince William Sound. They strongly contradict claims that wildlife, aquatic plants continue to suffer as a result of the spill.

ARNOLD: Those industry funded studies look at the Sound as a whole and find that it's healthy, robust and thriving. But a group of government scientists reporting to the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council, a state and federal board that oversees restoration, have reached a different conclusion. Looking specifically at some of the earliest and worst hit areas, they report a majority of injured species have not recovered, from seabirds to killer whales. And that lingering oil is in large part the culprit.

Mead Treadwell is a former spill response coordinator for the state's Department of Environmental Conservation. He testified to that effect.

Mr. MEAD TREADWELL (Former Spill Response Coordinator, Department of Environmental Conservation): We thought, or at least I thought, as one of the decision-makers that nature was going to take care of the issue. Nature hasn't.

ARNOLD: And that's been the finding of National Marine Fishery Service scientists as well. Jeff Short, a research chemist, has been studying the effects of the spill since it occurred. Three years ago, in the journal Science, he and others reported this simple yet solemn finding.

Mr. JEFF SHORT (Research Chemist, National Marine Fishery Service): Oil spills are a lot more damaging than we thought.

ARNOLD: Now, three years later, Short is even more certain. He and other scientists are closely examining how reservoirs of oil in intertitle areas are still getting into organisms, from mussels to sea otters. He and other researchers estimate six miles of shoreline is still affected by the spill and as much as a hundred tons of oil lingers in the Sound and will for several decades.

Mr. SHORT: That was a bit of a surprise too, that the oil could be persistent and still toxic sitting here 17 years later.

ARNOLD: Whether the affects of that oil constitutes significant and unanticipated harm will ultimately be up to a court to decide. The state and federal governments have until June 1 to file a claim. For NPR News I'm Elizabeth Arnold in Anchorage.

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