New rules could change how money is spent for Exxon Valdez oil spill restoration

On March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Within six hours of the grounding, the Exxon Valdez spilled approximately 10.9 million gallons (259,500 barrels) of its 53 million gallon cargo of Prudhoe Bay crude oil. The oil would eventually impact more than 1,100 miles of non-continuous coastline in Alaska, making the Exxon Valdez the largest oil spill in U.S. waters at the time. (Creative Commons by NOAA Office of Response and Restoration/Wikimedia)
On March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Within six hours of the grounding, the Exxon Valdez spilled approximately 10.9 million gallons of its 53 million gallon cargo of Prudhoe Bay crude oil. The oil would eventually impact more than 1,100 miles of non-continuous coastline in Alaska, making the Exxon Valdez the largest oil spill in U.S. waters at the time. (Creative Commons by NOAA Office of Response and Restoration/Wikimedia)

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council is looking to make major changes. New proposed bylaws would change how it can spend its trust funds and expand the oil spill’s original boundaries to incorporate an ecosystem approach.

Nearly 30 years ago, as part of a settlement arising from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the Exxon Corporation paid over $700 million to fund restoration and rehabilitation projects in areas immediately affected by the spill. Today, that fund sits at $140 million. The trustee council charged with managing that fund is proposing changes that would extend the fund’s life and impact.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang is a state trustee of the fund.

“I think the keyword is that we wanted more flexibility in how to spend the money,” Vincent-Lang said.

To achieve this flexibility, the trustees would need to combine certain trust fund accounts — namely the habitat and research ones — into a single multi-purpose account.

The habitat fund can only be used for projects that work to restore the oil spill impact area, such as the $4 million habitat enhancement project at Kodiak’s Buskin River watershed in 2017. The research fund can only be used for scientific research projects, like the proposed herring disease project for 2021.

“There was a general desire to fund the highest priority work irrespective of whether it was habitat or science-based projects,” Vincent-Lang said. “So we wanted to basically combine them into one account that would give us flexibility in how we could spend money. If the higher priority was habitat, we would have that opportunity to spend on habitat. But if the higher priority was to do scientific or recovery work, we have that flexibility. But right now we are confined to spend x amount of dollars on habitat and x amount of dollars on science.”

The accounts are currently earning good returns with the state Department of Revenue. However, federal legislation would need to be changed to combine those accounts.

To avoid the lengthy process of changing federal legislation, the council is also considering transferring these trust funds to the Department of Interior’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Fund which, according to the trustee council, typically earns minimal returns.

What might be the most significant proposed change to the restoration plan is a redefining of the oil spill impact boundary. Right now, the oil spill area is restricted to the initial impact area which covers much of Southcentral Alaska’s shoreline and Kodiak Island.

But the scope of restoration projects is changing to focus on ecosystem science, mariculture and herring.

“We wanted to utilize some of that existing infrastructure that the trustee council has put in place in the two science centers — Prince William sound Center and SeaLife Center,” Vincent-Lang said. “And basically have a program that incorporated elements of an ecosystem approach that gathered science on the Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound over the next 10 years that would basically put us in a position of continuing some of that foundational science that we’ve collected over the past five years.”

For instance, many of the sea birds injured by the spill have had to relocate significant distances away, interrupting their reproductive cycles. Changing the funding structure could allow for more comprehensive projects to study these birds.

“We wanted to try to have an ecosystem approach and a maricultural approach rather than an approach that was individual projects on a piecemeal basis — bird projects, herring projects and everything else. We wanted a more holistic approach at that science gathering,”

While many public comments made so far support these resolutions, some stakeholders are wanting the process to slow down.

In a public comment submitted to the Trustees, the Afognak Native Corporation warns that “any advancement of the agenda that these resolutions represent towards a spend down plan should be postponed until meaningful public participation and review of other options can be considered.”

But Commissioner Vincent-Lang notes that these resolutions are just ideas.

“We are far from a decision,” he said. “We respect the public process as we move forward and give people an opportunity to weigh in. We are going to listen carefully. Decisions have not been made.”

The next trustee meeting will take place on Jan. 19, where they will review the nearly 400 public comments already submitted on these proposed changes. Public comments will also be taken at the meeting.

People who would like to give public comments during the meeting, which are limited to 3 minutes per person, are asked to email Fish and Game.

Correction: A previous version of this story had the incorrect date for the next trustee council meeting. This has been amended.

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