Air Date: Week of March 5, 1999
Exxon Vice President for Safety and Environment explains why the company claims that Alaska’s Prince William Sound is "essentially" recovered. The company says some species have rebounded and others are on the road to recovery. Exxon also explains why it is appealing the $5 billion punitive award a jury has ordered the company to pay to thousands of Alaskans who sued for damages.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Valdez oil spill's tenth anniversary is an occasion for deep reflection in Alaska, and it's revived bitter feelings that many have toward Exxon. Dr. Frank Sprow is Exxon's Vice President for Environment and Safety and joins us from Dallas, Texas. Tell me about March 24, 1989. Is that a date that haunts you folks at Exxon? I think in Alaska they use this phrase, "the day that the water died." How did you feel that your company was responsible for this?
SPROW: Well, I think you used a key word and that's responsible. I heard about the spill on the radio, and when I got home and saw some of the video on television, I think it was a shocking sight. And when you realize that it was our oil and that we spilled it, that's a tough thing to stomach. You certainly knew that not only the environment but people's lives were going to be strongly affected by this. And so I think if anything, you get a real resolve to do what you can to try to make it better.
CURWOOD: What do your experts say about when or if the region will be back to normal?
SPROW: By and large we see Prince William Sound as a healthy, robust, thriving biological community. The majority of species there are in good shape. Those that were affected by the spill. You can have acute, short-term effects, as we did in this spill. But the environment has remarkable powers of recovery, and rather straightforwardly and quickly re-establishes itself and the biological communities that are there.
CURWOOD: What about the Trustee Council and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration? They have looked at this and they say that only 2 out of 11 key species, in their view, are fully recovered. How do you respond to those comments from the Trustee Council and NOAA?
SPROW: The problem, Steve, if you want to call it that, relates to the use of the phrase "recovery." The definition of recovery that some use is a return to 1989 conditions. Unfortunately, for most species, we don't know what their 1989 populations were. And perhaps even more importantly, the natural variability of changes in the Sound is such that you can't take a snapshot and expect at some future date for things to be as they were then. Our definition tends to be more in line with thinking biologically. Do we have a healthy biological system? Are the species that should be in the Sound there? Are they reproducing effectively? Do they have an adequate food supply? And on that measure we see the Sound as having essentially recovered.
CURWOOD: Let's talk about money for a moment. So far Exxon spent about 2-and-a-half billion dollars in cleanup costs and another billion dollars with your out of court settlement with the state and Federal governments. You've also been ordered to pay another $5 billion in punitive damages to thousands of Alaskans, but your company is appealing this verdict. Can you tell me why, please?
SPROW: Before I do that, Steve, I might mention that there's one element of cost which you left out, and that's the over $300 million which we immediately paid to those damaged by the spill. We worked with people to find out who were going to lose their fishing incomes, for example, and immediately paid those people for their loss of income, and in many cases also paid them for the use of their fishing boats and their own time and services to assist in the cleanup. So it was a lot of money paid to compensate for damages suffered in the spill. The punitive damages that you mention we think are totally inappropriate.
CURWOOD: So, Exxon should not be punished for this.
SPROW: I think that what we have done is the responsible thing, in terms of the cleanup, the largest cleanup operation that's ever been taken on in the US. And the concept of punitive damages is just something that we think is wholly inappropriate for this situation.
CURWOOD: We've been hearing from people about the enduring lessons of the Valdez spill. And I'm wondering Dr. Sprow, if you'd just take a moment to tell us what you think is the lesson that has been learned by Exxon.
SPROW: That an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That's an old phrase, but if there were any disbelievers that that's a very accurate statement, they disappeared 10 years ago.
CURWOOD: I want to thank you for joining us. Dr. Frank Sprow is Vice President for Environment and Safety at the Exxon Corporation.
SPROW: Thanks very much for the opportunity to talk to you, Steve.
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