OIL SPILL: Exxon Valdez case goes back to court (03/04/2011)

More than two decades have passed since the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The Supreme Court has had its say and the company now called Exxon Mobil Corp. has pronounced the matter closed. But today, the company, the government and a marine biologist with a history of not letting either off the hook are heading back to federal court.

They will be arguing the meaning of a special section in the original 1991 agreement over the spill that could cost the company more than $100 million.

The section, known as the “reopener” provision, has reopened questions about Exxon Mobil’s continuing obligations for the 11-million-gallon spill and whether the government has taken appropriate steps to hold the company accountable.

In December, Rick Steiner, the marine biologist, filed a motion asking a judge to use the reopener provision to order Exxon to pay $115 million for what he said were unanticipated environmental damages caused by the wreck. Steiner points to studies that show a majority of the species hit by the spill have not yet fully recovered.

The sum breaks down as $92 million in damages and $23 million in interest. Steiner said the government itself had demanded $92 million in 2006 but has not yet followed up.

The government filed a motion in response to Steiner’s saying he had no standing in court. But on Jan. 14, Judge H. Russel Holland of the U.S. District Court in Alaska, who presided over the 1991 agreement, ordered a hearing on the matter.

“No doubt the public is interested in knowing the status of the latter proceedings,” Holland wrote, referring to the 2006 reopener claim, “and this court is very seriously interested in seeing overall closure of the litigation flowing from the grounding of the Exxon Valdez.”

Exxon Mobil says it has already paid about $900 million under the 1991 settlement, and that whatever damage the sound still suffers is not unexpected and thus does not meet the requirements of the reopener provision (William Yardley, New York Times, March 3)

~ by fredfelleman on March 4, 2011.

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