Federal officials and representatives of the State of Alaska have agreed on the basic elements of a settlement with the Exxon Corp., involving civil damages of some $1.2 billion for the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Alaska Atty. Gen. Charles Cole said Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters in Juneau after returning from meetings with federal officials in Washington, Cole said negotiations on outstanding elements of an agreement will resume next week. He is hopeful that a final settlement can be worked out within the next month, he said.
“A broad framework for the settlement of the state and federal natural resource damage claim has been reached,” he said, adding that lawyers will now turn their efforts to getting specifics in writing.
Justice Department officials refused to comment on Cole’s remarks but federal officials said they are prepared to proceed as scheduled with the April 10 criminal trial against Exxon for one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.
Nearly 11 million gallons of oil were spilled into the waters of Prince William Sound when the supertanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef on March 24, 1989. The damage is expected to be felt for generations despite an unprecedented cleanup effort.
A spokesman for Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel said the governor had pushed to bring the lingering issue of civil damages to a head while he was in Washington last week for President Bush’s unveiling of the Administration’s national energy strategy.
Before returning to Alaska, Hickel, who was sworn in last December, met with Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner and other federal trustees involved in the negotiations with the oil company.
Hickel’s spokesman said Wednesday that “a lot of work remains to be done” before a firm settlement is concluded but that--for now anyway--Alaska’s attorney general sees no “deal breaker” to threaten the framework accord.
Cole refused to go into details or to provide specific figures for the agreement. When he was asked about the $1.2-billion figure, which has been the subject of speculation in recent weeks, he said that it is “in the ballpark.”
Any payments agreed to would be made over a period of years. A spokesman for Hickel said the understanding also includes a provision that Exxon would make additional payments if new information is developed showing that the figure is inadequate.
The company has already paid damages to more than 13,000 fishermen, hunters, and other Alaska claimants, and has spent more than $2 billion on cleanup operations. But environmentalists insist that more needs to be done.
With rumors of a settlement circulating last week, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), the acting chairman of the House Interior Committee, cautioned U.S. Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh to proceed with caution and consult with Congress before agreeing to any settlement.
If convicted on the pending criminal charges, Exxon could be fined $640 million.