Exxon, Justice argue whether company can challenge ship ban

Posted: Monday, November 13, 2000

SEATTLE (AP) -- Exxon and Justice Department attorneys were back in court Monday quibbling over the aftermath of the 1989 spill of 11 million gallons of crude oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez into Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound.

The question for a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is whether a 1991 consent degree between Exxon and the Justice Department bars Exxon from challenging a 1990 law that expressly forbids the tanker -- now named the SeaRiver Mediterranean -- from going back to the sound.

U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland in Anchorage, where the case finally settled after Exxon tried filing it in Texas and the District of Columbia, threw it out, citing the consent decree.

Exxon appealed his finding to the 9th Circuit in 1998.

If the appeals court agrees with Exxon, the case would go back to Holland unless it is appealed further -- to the full circuit court in San Francisco or eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court.

A provision of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 closes Prince William Sound to any vessel that spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil there after March 22, 1989.

The Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef on March 24, 1989.

The dispute is based on language in the consent decree, under which Exxon agreed to that restriction, among others, to resolve costly legal wrangling over the spill.

Exxon attorney E. Edward Bruce of Washington, D.C., said the company did not surrender its constitutional rights when it agreed not to challenge claims relating to or arising from the oil spill.

Bruce contends the ban violates Exxon's constitutional rights to due process and equal treatment under the law, as well as constitutional bans on laws covering events after the fact, and on legislation designed to punish particular individuals.

The company says the tanker now known as SeaRiver Mediterranean was designed expressly to ship Alaska crude oil, which is transported from Arctic oil fields on Prudhoe Bay to a tanker port at Valdez, Alaska, through the trans-Alaska pipeline.

The vessel is ''being used at a loss,'' Bruce told the court. The company is ''suffering economic harm.''

The 1989 spill polluted more than 1,000 miles of Alaska shoreline, killed tens of thousands of birds and marine mammals and disrupted fishing.

Exxon has paid out $2.2 billion for cleanup, $1 billion to settle state and federal lawsuits and $300 million for lost wages to 11,000 fishermen and business operators.

The company also has challenged a $5.3 billion damage award to the 9th Circuit.

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