« Return to this article

Know the West

Legal challenges over Exxon Valdez sputter to an end

Lingering oil remains and ecological monitoring will continue. But Alaskans are moving on.


When the sun set just after 8 pm on March 23, 1989, nothing was amiss in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The ocean lapped at rocky, seaweed-strewn beaches, boats dotted the horizon, and thousands of sea otters floated serenely on their backs.

But all that changed the following morning, when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground and hemorrhaged 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sound. The spill not only transformed human and ecologic communities for decades to come, it also upended the world’s understanding of the long-term effects of a marine oil spill. Prior to Exxon Valdez, scientists believed that the biggest impacts were the animals that washed up dead in the immediate aftermath of a spill. They predicted that Prince William Sound would fully recover within 15 years. 

In reality, it took much longer. Sea otter populations didn’t bounce back to pre-spill levels until just last summer, and other species may never recover: One group of orcas hasn’t birthed a surviving calf since before the spill. And while the precise cause of these long-term impacts isn’t always clear, there’s little doubt that lingering oil plays a role. “The chronic effects for some species can be of the same magnitude as the immediate effects,” Dan Esler, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told me last year. 

So in 1991, when Exxon negotiated a billion-dollar settlement to help clean up and monitor Prince William Sound, the company also agreed to a “re-opener claim” — a provision that allowed the state and federal governments to ask for more money should unanticipated impacts be revealed. In 2006, when it was clear that the oil was more insidious than anyone had anticipated, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Alaska Department of Law asked Exxon for another $92 million to clean up the oil that was still hampering the recovery of harlequin ducks and sea otters. The company refused to pay, and the case has been in limbo ever since.

Last week it came to an end. In an anticlimactic, 15-minute hearing in federal court, the state of Alaska and the U.S. government dropped the case. U.S. Department of Justice attorney John Cruden explained to E&E News that with duck and otter populations now back to pre-spill levels, the recovery of Prince William Sound is a “real success story,” and the $92 million is no longer necessary. (ExxonMobil did not return a call for comment.) 

Workers clean up the coast of Big Smith Island in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

But though long-term monitoring will continue, some Alaskans think the governments should have pushed for more money. David Janka, a charter boat captain who has spent years documenting the residual oil, says that Prince William Sound is far from recovered. Approximately 21,000 gallons of oil remain buried under rocks, and the spill continues to impact fishermen, subsistence users and community members who lost jobs, livelihoods and, in some cases, lives. Ironically, the news also comes on the heels of a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that suggests the collapse of Prince William Sound’s herring fishery might be more closely connected to the oil spill than previously suspected. 

Others, however, think dropping the case was the right call. Scott Pegau, coordinator of the Herring Research and Monitoring program at the Prince William Sound Science Center, questions whether the new research actually links the herring collapse to the oil spill. He says that while it may show why the fishery initially collapsed, it doesn’t explain why herring haven’t rebounded. He thinks larger oceanographic forces may be at work. 

And Mark Carls, a toxicologist with NOAA, says that despite the 21,000 gallons of oil remaining, the state and the feds made the right decision to not seek additional funds to clean it up. As it is, much of the oil is buried beyond the reach of oxygen. While this means that it’s taking an extraordinarily long time to break down – 25 years after spill, it had the consistency of oil unearthed just 11 days prior – it also means the oil isn’t leaching into the environment. Any cleanup efforts would require disrupting the ecosystem even more — bringing in heavy machinery, tearing up the beach and potentially exposing animals to a fresh wave of hydrocarbons. 

What nearly everyone seems to agree on, though, is that the decision offers a sense of relief. Craig Matkin, an orca biologist who’s watched one population that he studied for decades decline to near-extinction, says that while he wishes Exxon were forced to fund additional research on “the systems they despoiled,” he likes "the idea of closure. The negative energy ... needs to end, and this sense I am glad for the decision."

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News.