President Bush today dispatched three senior federal officials to Alaska’s oil-polluted Prince William Sound to “take a hard look at where this disaster stands” and said there are conflicting reports on whether Exxon’s cleanup of the massive spill is sufficient.
A federal takeover of the cleanup operation is one option that will be considered, the President told reporters at an Oval Office meeting with Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Bill Reilly and Coast Guard Commandant Paul Yost.
Bush said he asked the three “to go up to Alaska to take a hard look at where this disaster stands.” They departed after leaving the White House.
‘Assess the Situation’
“I think it’s important these top officials, federal officials, go there and then they will report to me after they’ve had a chance to assess the situation on the ground,” the President said.
Bush said the spillage of 11 million gallons of oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez, the largest oil spill in U.S. history, was “a matter of tremendous concern to Alaskans and to all of us.”
Asked whether Exxon, which is overseeing the cleanup effort, was doing enough and if he was satisfied with the pace of the effort, he said:
“They’re certainly making a good beginning here, but there are some conflicting reports on that. I don’t want to prejudge that. I think one of the things that we’re interested in hearing is exactly how our top officials feel the cleanup is going.”
A federal takeover of the operation is “an option,” Bush said.
Both Bush and Skinner hinted that Exxon might face big civil penalties.
“There are a variety of legal options that are available. But now the primary consideration is to make sure everything possible is being done,” Skinner said.
Bush said: “The thing is to get it cleaned up, to protect the very precious environment out there, to make sure everything is being done to clean up this disaster. And then we’ll have all these penalties and all that later on.”
Bush said he still supports a proposal to open a pristine arctic wildlife refuge to oil drilling, which faces more intense scrutiny after the spill of millions of gallons of oil into environmentally sensitive waters off the Alaska coast.
“There’s no connection” between that and the oil spill, Bush said.