Alaskans fight return of Exxon Valdez to oil spill site Ship has become symbol of ecological disaster

March 16, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Pete Kompkoff and the other villagers of Chenega know perfectly well that when the Exxon Valdez hemorrhaged oil onto their shores, it was the crew that was at fault, not the ship.

But they are not about to sit back silently in the coming weeks as Exxon Corp. seeks permission in U.S. District Court here for the tanker, renamed the Mediterranean, to return to Prince William Sound, where in 1989 it unleashed one of the nation's worst environmental disasters.

"It's just like a slap in the face, even though the machine didn't do the damage," said Kompkoff, administrator of the 28-house village tucked onto an island that is one small puzzle piece in the white-and-blue jigsaw of the sparsely populated sound. "It's the people behind the wheel."

The suit, which will begin its court process here March 24, "is an insult, just the idea of having the Exxon Valdez back on Prince William Sound," Kompkoff said.

That reaction reflects the deep damage, environmental and emotional, that remains eight years after the tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef and leaked nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil.

The physical damage is easiest to measure. Though the bald eagles are back to their former numbers, experts say, researchers have found that the rest of the ecosystem is still hurting.

From mussels to salmon to sea otters, the wildlife is either recovering or, like the populations of harbor seals, harlequin ducks and Pacific herring, still devastated.

Remnants of spill remain

Most of the oil is gone, said Molly McCammon, executive director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. "But there are beaches where, on a hot sunny day, you can still smell the oil, or you can scuff your foot in the sand and still get to fresh oil," she said. "And what's there now is going to take a long time to go."

The council guides the spending of $900 million that Exxon, the nation's largest oil company, was required to pay in a 1991 civil settlement to finance restoration of the environment.

Along with studying and trying to help the flora and fauna, the council has also begun trying to protect some of the damaged area in perpetuity by helping to buy swatches of land and manage them for the good of the wildlife.

Last month, the council joined with the federal government to buy its first major parcel on the sound, 60,000 acres in the hardest-hit area.

But if villagers like those in Chenega remain furious about the spill, it is in part because the biggest part of the penalties imposed on Exxon, a $5 billion award by a state jury in 1994 for damage to the thousands of fishermen, landowners and other residents, is being appealed by the oil company.

Lawyers expect the suit to be tied up in court so long that fishermen and scientists wonder aloud whether they will see it resolved in their lifetimes.

With that money held up, the fishermen of the spill area remain largely uncompensated for their still diminished catches.

The trustee council plans to spend nearly $2 million this year to clean eight beaches in the Chenega area, partly to restore villagers' confidence and partly, Kompkoff said, because they need the work. It has been years since the cash bonanzas they received from helping with the cleanup, which cost Exxon hundreds of millions of dollars.

Insurance settlement

In November, Exxon settled its insurance claims for the spill, receiving a total of $780 million against costs that it says totaled $2.5 billion.

With such lingering problems and Exxon's biggest bill left unpaid, one reader of the Anchorage Daily News suggested that the Mediterranean be allowed to return to Prince William Sound, if the company pays the $5 billion.

Exxon's view, needless to say, is different. The Exxon shipping subsidiary that is bringing the suit here, Seariver Maritime Financial Holdings, is challenging the provision in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that is keeping the vessel out of the sound, saying the law was applied retroactively.

Among other actions, the law, passed when horror about the spill was high, barred any vessel that had spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil after March 22, 1989 -- the Valdez spill started March 23 -- from sailing in Prince William Sound again.

Seariver, in Houston, protests that the provision was meant as punishment for Exxon and constitutes an unconstitutional taking of its property without providing redress.

"This is a pretty significant constitutional issue," said Arthur Stephen, a spokesman for Seariver, "as to can you come along at some point and retroactively prohibit a vessel from operating where she was designed for, where she was certified by all the government agencies for operating? And frankly, do you do it against a piece of equipment?"

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