June 20, 2002 Alaska Newspapers Inc. urges keeping intact list of species hurt by Exxon Valdez oil spill

Posted: Monday, June 24, 2002

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council may loosen the definitions on whether wildlife species damaged by the 1989 oil spill have recovered. The council also may ask at its July 9 meeting whether it's possible to even measure the recovery of some species.

Lowering the standard would be a tragedy that would damage Alaska's efforts to protect its natural beauty. Though the council may not pursue the changes, that they're even under consideration is a depressing admission that short-term profit takes precedence over the long-term health of an ecosystem.

More is at risk than the six species or animal groups that arbitrarily would be moved to the recovered list with little to no justification. Changing the classification will provide at least moral support to Exxon Mobil Corp.'s argument that Prince William Sound has recovered from the 11-million-gallon spill.

An appeals court has already struck down the $5 billion punitive damage awarded by an Anchorage jury. Now Exxon Mobil has asked a federal court to reduce the penalty to just $25 to $40 million.

One of the species that would move to recovered status under the new classification is a pod of killer whales that numbered 36 before the spill. The AB pod lost 13 members in 1989 and 1990, but has grown slightly to 26 whales. Under the new guidelines, the pod would move to the recovered list just because it is stable or increasing.

Only bald eagles and river otters are on the recovered list. The looser classification would suddenly include pink salmon, red salmon, common murres, black oystercatchers and subtidal communities.

The public should demand a higher standard. Despite massive cleanup efforts, more oil than expected continues to coat beaches and cliffs. It's no surprise that only two of 25 species and animal groups have returned to pre-spill levels.

The courts have already erred by allowing Exxon Mobil to reduce its damages. The council should not follow suit.


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