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U.S. v. Exxon Corporation, et al. (D.Alaska)
Prince William Sound area, Alaska.  Courtesy of EXXON VALDEZ Oil Spill Trustee Council through NOAA.

The Incident:

Prior to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest oil spill in U.S. history, from the reef-torn hull of the tanker vessel EXXON VALDEZ occurred on the night of March 23-24, 1989. The spill occurred when the ship ran aground on a well-charted reef. Approximately 11 million gallons of crude oil escaped. Wind and rough seas spread the oil across much of Prince William Sound and into the Gulf of Alaska.

The Response:

Under the direction of federal and state authorities and with help from thousands of citizen volunteers and local governments, Exxon mounted a vast cleanup effort. By 1991, most of the oil had been removed at a cost to Exxon of about $2.5 billion.

Environmental Impact of the Spill:

Impacts from the spill included:

  • over 1,100 miles of shoreline heavily or moderately oiled;

  • an estimated 100,000-300,000 ducks and seabirds killed;

  • 2,000-3,000 sea otters and at least 300 harbor seals killed;

  • mussel, clams, and other animals and plants along the oiled beaches killed by oil or by cleanup activities;

  • economically-vital commercial and recreational fisheries were essentially closed for a year and seriously disrupted after that;

  • scores of Native Alaskan archaeological sites damaged;

  • disruption of recreation, tourism, and subsistence gathering, hunting, and fishing over huge areas for a year or more.

Civil Judicial Enforcement:

The Spill created a legal mess no less sprawling and long-lived as the physical mess it left on the on the beaches of southeastern Alaska. Thousands of private tort claims filed against Exxon Corporation and its subsidiaries (now Exxon Mobil) are only now, after more than 20 years, four trips to the Ninth Circuit, and a Supreme Court decision, nearing closure.

The Environmental Enforcement Section (EES) lawyers from the Department of Justice, Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD), in partnership with attorneys from other Divisions in the Department, worked with three federal trustee agencies [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Commerce Department; the Department of the Interior; and the U.S. Department of Agricultureís Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the State of Alaska] to develop evidence of the spillís effects and to determine the amount of damages that should be paid for the publicís losses from injuries to natural resources. This was the largest natural resource damages assessment ever, involving hundreds of scientific experts and many economists.

In March 1991, EES filed a Complaint against Exxon for recovery of natural resource damages and spill cleanup costs, relying primarily on Section 311(f) of the Clean Water Act as well as a Consent Decree proposing to settle the action.

On October 8, 1991, the District Court approved not only the Consent Decree resolving the federal and state civil claims, but also an Agreement in which the federal and state governments agreed to use all natural resource damages recovered by either for jointly-selected projects to restore injured natural resources and natural resource services.

The Outcome:

The Decree provided for the largest monetary recovery in a civil environmental enforcement case to date: $900 million paid over a period of ten years.

  • Approximately $200 million of that amount was allocated to reimburse damages assessment costs or cleanup costs

  • The remainder went into a special fund for use exclusively for restoration projects relating to the Spill, and for studies and other activities needed to support the restoration effort.

The Legal Impact of the Spill:

In addition to this huge settlement, the Spill led to important legal and policy changes in which the ENRD played a role. In 1990, with advice from ENRD, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act (OPA) to strengthen safety requirements for oil tankers in U.S. waters and provide clearer, tougher legal remedies when oil spills occur. New natural resource damages assessment rules adopted by NOAA under OPA (also with advice and legal support from ENRD) endorsed using the cost of restoration projects as the preferred measure of damages, instead of relying on economic tools to place a value on lost natural resources.


Last Updated: November 2010