Senate panel hears Exxon Valdez funding measure on spill anniversary

JUNEAU — On the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Senate Judiciary Committee took up a resolution Monday calling on the state and federal governments to seek additional money for restoration stemming from the disaster.

Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said one of her goals in bringing SJR25 — particularly in light of the potential for drilling in the Arctic or the development of a massive copper-and-gold prospect near the headwaters of Bristol Bay — was to “assure the world” that Alaska has high standards for how it will respond to industrial accidents. She said she also wanted to ensure the governments did not miss any windows for collecting what has been claimed.

The committee did not act on the measure Monday; it was merely a first hearing, and testimony was only taken from Gardner and an aide. But the committee’s chair, Sen. John Coghill, said he felt it was appropriate on this day, “to say there’s still unfinished business yet to do.”

The 987-foot Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef near Valdez on March 24, 1989, spilling about 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. Several lawmakers spoke of the event on the floors of the Alaska House and Senate on Monday.

Lawsuits brought against Exxon Mobil Corp. by the state and federal governments after the spill led to a $900 million settlement and a consent decree that resolved claims related to natural resource damages. The decree included what is called a “reopener” clause that would allow the governments to seek additional funds for restoration projects.

In 2006, the governments demanded $92 million, but they have not asked a judge to enforce the provision.

In response to government status reports last July, U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland said he was “dismayed” that so few of the projects expected to be finished by that date had in fact been completed.

The governments, in their latest status update filed earlier this month, reported progress toward finishing studies surrounding the lingering impacts of the spill. Another status report is expected in October.