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Alaska, Feds End Exxon Valdez Legal Claims

(CN) - The U.S. government and Alaska are concluding legal action over the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill after positive environmental study results, the Justice Department said Thursday.

The Exxon Valdez tanker vessel spilled almost 11 million gallons of crude oil in Alaska's Prince William Sound in March 1989, contaminating 1,500 miles of coastline, according to the federal government.

In 1991, a federal judge approved a criminal plea agreement for Exxon Corporation's environmental violations and a civil settlement between Exxon and the state and federal governments. Exxon paid $125 million for a criminal fine and agreed to pay the governments $900 million over 10 years under the civil settlement.

The federal government and the state known as the Last Frontier have now decided not to recover additional damages under the 1991 Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement because harlequin ducks and sea otters in Prince William Sound have recovered to pre-spill population levels, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The governments withdrew a 2006 request to ExxonMobil Corporation to fund bio-restoration of subsurface lingering oil patches after scientists found that exposure to such oil is no longer impacting the ducks and otters, the Justice Department says.

A designated oil spill trustee council used the civil settlement money to help restore natural resources and habitats affected by the 1989 oil spill. The council still has $200 million for future restoration efforts, according to a Justice Department press release.

The 1991 settlement contained a "reopener" provision that allowed the Alaskan and federal governments to ask for another $100 million from Exxon if they learned of environmental problems that developed after the settlement.

The governments preserved a reopener claim in 2006 by giving Exxon a plan to address lingering oil patches found among shoreline rocks and in subsurface sediments, the press release states.

However, studies have shown that harlequin ducks and sea otters, thought to have been vulnerable to the lingering oil, are no longer exposed to oil more than populations outside the spill area, the Justice Department says.

A joint status report, filed in Alaska Federal Court and dated Oct. 14, says the United States and Alaska will not seek to reopen the Exxon Valdez case.

John Cruden of the Justice Department's Environmental and Natural Resources Division said in a statement that the decision to end governmental legal action over the 1989 oil spill highlights the success of restoration efforts.

"Together with our partners in the Alaska Department of Law, we preserved a potential reopener claim and investigated it to its logical end. Our action today allows us to celebrate all that has been accomplished in Prince William Sound since the spill," Cruden said.

Scientists will continue to monitor lingering oil sites and will report back to the trustee council to decide whether more restoration work is needed, according to the Justice Department.

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