The Exxon Settlement

March 22, 1991

Settling a lawsuit, especially one filed over a controversy as emotionally charged as the fouling of Alaska's Prince William Sound by the Exxon Valdez, is often less satisfying to the complaining side than a clear victory in court. It is, however, eminently practical.

Thus, it is not surprising that people in Alaska, seconded vociferously by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, have criticized the three-way, $1.1 billion settlement between the company, the state of Alaska and the U.S. Justice Department. Summed up, the big beef is that Exxon hasn't suffered enough. And indeed, a company that could swallow $2 billion in costs for its initial frenzied attempt to deal with the damage to fisheries, shorelines, marine animals and their habitats without a burp could clearly stand a heavier hit to its pocketbook.

The object of all this effort is not merely to keep Exxon in the dock, however. It is to let the state of Alaska get on with its business of monitoring and repairing what can be corrected in damaged Prince William Sound. For the Justice Department, winning a $100-million settlement of its criminal complaint over environmental damage sets a major precedent.

Scientific studies of the oil-fouled beaches show that, surprisingly, nature has made an impressive start on cleaning up the damage, despite the loss of thousands of birds and other wildlife. Prince William Sound's fisheries seem to have done better after a moratorium on harvesting, too. That's encouraging, even if all the evidence is not yet in.

Finally, it must be noted that suits by private parties, including individual Alaska businesses, villages, native Aleuts and the environmental groups, are still in process. U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin has retained jurisdiction in the case to make sure all the plaintiffs' rights are protected, not just the interests of the state's government. That seems fair and reasonable and, if the remaining critics have a better case to make about how much Exxon should pay, they can make it in their own lawsuits.

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