Commentary: Don’t let government give up on Exxon Valdez restoration

Workers wash down shore lines soaked in crude oil from the leaking Exxon Valdez oil tanker. (Mar. 28, 1989) Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Bad ideas in Alaska have a way of never dying.

It has just come to public attention that, yet again as in 2018, a private group convened by the Rasmuson Foundation is proposing that the entire remaining balance of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (“EVOS”) Restoration funds (approx. $188 million), obtained by the governments from Exxon through the 1991 oil spill consent decree, be transferred directly to the Alaska Community Foundation.

The “New Vision for EVOS” proposal, from a group calling itself the “EVOS Think Tank of Citizens,” convened and funded by the Rasmuson Foundation, would turn all responsibility for the government Restoration process over to a politically conservative, non-governmental foundation that has absolutely no experience with environmental issues in general, oil spill Restoration in particular. The Alaska Community Foundation focuses on economic development, schools, the arts and humanities — not environmental issues. It simply cannot be trusted with an issue as important as the Exxon Valdez environmental restoration.

The proposal would allocate most of the remaining funds to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova, the Chugach Heritage Foundation, the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and a research endowment. These may be laudable community development enterprises, but none of these would do anything to directly assist the environmental recovery of the impacted ecosystem, which must remain the singular focus of the Restoration process.

Many who have worked with the EVOS Restoration process for more than 30 years strongly object to this ill-conceived proposal to raid the remaining EVOS Restoration Fund to use mostly for projects having little to do with environmental recovery. 

The Rasmuson-sponsored proposal would put an end to court-ordered government EVOS restoration program when there is still a great deal of work left to do. More than 30 years after the grounding, many of the resources and resource services injured by the spill remain listed by the Trustee Council as not fully recovered. Some, such as marbled murrelets, pigeon guillemots, herring, and the AT1 orca pod, remain listed today as “Not Recovering.” Toxic Exxon Valdez oil remains in the beaches of Prince William Sound. And there are still many large-parcel habitat protection opportunities remaining before the Council that offer significant benefit to achievement of restoration goals. 

The Rasmuson-sponsored proposal does not directly address these ongoing environmental injuries or restoration opportunities in any significant way. The proposal contains little detailed discussion of the goals and objectives of the long-established EVOS Restoration Plan, or measures needed to accomplish them. The proposal essentially throws in the towel on oil spill environmental recovery — a profound betrayal of the state’s “responsible oil development” mantra.

Historically, with so much money available through the EVOS Restoration process, many organizations — agencies, universities, industries, communities — asked what’s in this for them, rather than how the funds could best serve full recovery of the injured environment. Ironically, this was the same singular, selfish focus that caused the oil spill in the first place, and the same mistaken priorities expressed in the current “New Vision” proposal.

Fortunately, any such significant change to the 1991 consent decrees and Memorandum of Agreement (the $1 billion Exxon Valdez spill settlement) would need to be approved by the U.S. District Court. We are confident the court would agree with our concerns, and would overrule any such attempt to betray the original consent decree/court order. While the governments have not always gotten it right with the EVOS restoration process, they do have the sole statutory authority to conduct environmental restoration — not a community development foundation.

If the existing state and federal administrations cannot remain true to the original intent of the consent decree and the overwhelming public sentiment guiding the Restoration process, then they should transfer all responsibility and remaining funds directly back to the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court (as proposed in our alternative 2018 proposal, posted on the EVOSTC website), and a court-appointed Special Master would then ensure the future integrity of the EVOS restoration program. 

Finally, there is the issue of timing of the proposal. We are now less than five months away from the November election, and seven months away from the likely inauguration of a new federal administration. We are also in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession, demanding the public’s full attention and focus. Such a significant public policy proposal cannot possibly receive the public review and consideration it deserves at this time.

And it would be highly inappropriate to even consider terminating the long-established, court-ordered government EVOS Restoration process, as proposed, until new federal trustees are seated next year. Such a major transition at this point would rightly be seen by the public and the court as blatantly political.

Bottom line: the Rasmuson sponsored “New Vision for EVOS” proposal must be flatly rejected, and the state and federal trustees must continue doing everything possible to assist in the recovery of the injured environment.


Rick Steiner is a retired professor with the University of Alaska, and was the university’s marine advisor for the Prince William Sound region stationed in Cordova from 1983-1996. He was a co-founder of the Prince William Sound Science Center and proposed the Exxon/government settlement in 1990. He advises the U.N. and foreign governments on oil spill prevention, response, damage assessment and restoration.