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Litigation Stanches Flow of Data on Exxon Valdez Oil Spill’s Effects

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A third summer has passed since the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and one can see positive signs of environmental recovery in Prince William Sound. But, because the eyes can see only so much, the intellect remains wary.

Just how bad, or good, is it now in one of America’s most bountiful waterways after America’s worst oil leak?

Don’t ask.

Those who know will not tell. Certainly, they will not tell all.

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Science is playing less of a role in fostering knowledge and shaping policy about the Alaskan spill than it is in laying the foundation for what looms as epic litigation for damage reimbursement.

State and federal officials have spent something like $100 million in taxpayer funds so far trying to assess the consequences of the spill--then, now and for the long run.

That’s about $9 worth of science for every gallon of oil that washed into the sound.

For this, however, Americans and their policy-makers have received just one update on the government work, a 19-page synopsis of interim scientific findings. This was released last spring when it looked as if there would be a negotiated settlement in the damage cases.

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Since then, a pretrial settlement with Exxon unraveled and lawyers went to work preparing for the first trial, to begin perhaps this autumn. Almost nothing of scientific significance has been released since then.

“Litigation-sensitive material,” the government and Exxon call it.

For its part, Exxon has released more voluminous materials than the government, all of it positive.

Some people are getting impatient for more comprehensive scientific information, particularly considering that Congress is deliberating whether to allow exploratory drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Oil companies hope to find jackpot-sized reserves in the refuge and keep the oil flowing through Prince William Sound for another generation.

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“In a democratic society like ours, the public should be enlightened and have the best information possible to influence public policy,” says David R. Cline, regional vice president of the National Audubon Society. “We are being denied facts, and that’s untenable.”

Government officials, however, counsel patience.

Biologist Paul Gertler is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s top official on the spill. He says that for the government to divulge its studies now would give Exxon precious extra time to try to discredit the data.

“Our objective is to restore or help restore the resources of Prince William Sound. And that requires a lot of dollars,” Gertler says. “If that means in the short run a withholding of information, that is a cost that has to be paid.”

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It can be noted that the dollars involved are large indeed. A $1.1-billion negotiated damage settlement fell apart in the spring because a judge found the $100-million criminal penalty proposed in the overall settlement too insignificant. It is the trial on criminal charges that is scheduled to begin in Anchorage in October; civil trials may be years away.

So for now that leaves the spotty anthology of selectively divulged science, anecdote, rumor, conflicting PR and one’s own eyes to judge the consequences of the spill and to ponder its significance.

On the upside, this August’s return of spawning pink salmon shapes up as a record for the second year in a row. These are the first returning fish exposed to oil as eggs, and scientists are watching the run closely.

Exxon welcomed the fish as living proof of the “recovery” of Prince William Sound.

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“Because the short-term impacts of an oil spill are so great, we assume the long-term impacts must be there--and that’s not necessarily the case,” Exxon wildlife biologist Mike Barker says. " . . . There aren’t any real long-term bogymen in oil. Our children play on oil when they play on the playground. We expose ourselves to it every day; we clothe ourselves in it; we literally eat off of it . . . . We don’t suffer as a result and the organisms of Prince William Sound don’t, either.”

On the downside, environmentalists say it is too early to determine whether the bountiful pink salmon are fish actually exposed to oil or whether they were from protected hatchery stocks. They note that the scanty studies released to date indicate that some bird populations could require 70 years to recover and that known animal losses are in the hundreds of thousands.

“This much we do know,” Audubon’s Cline says, "--it’s not all behind us.”


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