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Oil spill trustees approve resolution to extend Exxon Valdez restoration zone

The Bering River, which sits east of the Copper River Delta, contains a coal deposit that some...
The Bering River, which sits east of the Copper River Delta, contains a coal deposit that some hope to protect under the expanded Exxon Valdez Oil Spill restoration zone.(The Eyak Preservation Council, Cordova)
Published: Jan. 24, 2021 at 3:37 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - This week, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council approved a resolution to expand the boundaries of the restoration zone that was mapped out in 1994, indicating exactly where funds from a $900 million settlement could be spent.

According to the state’s original restoration plan, the trustee council has limited authority to approve restoration work outside of the zone when the most effective path towards the recovery of injured regional wildlife populations are located outside the officially designated “spill area.”

Through this newly approved resolution, the council will now take an “ecosystem wide” approach.

Historically, the area along the western bank of the Copper River marked the edge of the restoration zone. Those in favor of expanding the boundaries have long argued that a significant population of sockeye salmon and the dozens of species of sea birds that migrate across the Prince William Sound are connected to streams throughout the entire Copper River Delta, and as far east as the Bering River.

Dune Lankard, who founded the Native Conservancy in Cordova, says the council’s decision is welcome news.

“We’ve always felt that it should include the entire Copper River Delta, because all five species of salmon make a living on the delta and in the Prince William Sound,” Lankard said. “The silt that flows from the Copper River flows into the Prince William Sound. The salmon, herring, 15 different whale species — All migrate through the delta and the sound. It’s the same water body. Same ecosystem. Same habitat.”

According to Lankard, most of the science that took place from 1989 to present day shows that the ecosystem is still far from recovery. He feels that making efforts to restore areas that have yet to see funding will be critical for the region; however, there are those that would have the original designations remain in place.

Detractors have argued that expanding the restoration zone would only take resources away from the many unrecovered areas within the the original boundary lines.

Some examples of long-term damage in the region include the decline in PWS herring runs, the AT1 orca pod and long-term drop in marbled murrelet populations. Language in the resolution clearly address the concerns of those who would continue to focus on efforts to correct damages closer to the site of the spill.

“The Council, having spent considerable effort to successfully address the direct impacts of the 1989 oil spill is now in a position to address the broader spectrum of ecological impacts, including the adverse effects to ecosystem services and mobile fish and wildlife populations whose ranges overlap or intersect with the spill area,” it reads.

Local biologist Rick Steiner worked as a marine advisor for the University of Alaska Anchorage at the time of the spill. He was one of the first scientists to arrive at the scene of the spill. Steiner witnessed the widespread impacts that the spill had on the Prince William Sound firsthand. He says that one of the biggest remaining opportunities for conservation in the region’s ecosystem is the Bering River coal field.

“The Prince William Sound will never fully recover from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill,” Steiner said. “You fix what you can, know what you can’t fix and then mitigate it with some offsetting environmental projects.”

His hope is that action to expand the restoration zone will enable use of oil spill settlement funds to purchase the rights to develop the Bering River coal deposit. In Steiner’s opinion, protecting the area’s ecosystem from potential mining hazards would be the best path towards further protecting the waters of the Prince William Sound and the Copper River Delta.

He also say the boundaries that were implemented in 1994 were arbitrary and not scientific.

“I was one of the people that objected to it, fearing that a future trustee council would misconstrue the boundary as a hard boundary, outside of which they couldn’t spend money,” Steiner told Alaska’s News Source.

Oasis Earth, Steiner’s environmental consulting firm, estimates that the rights to the Bering River coal field would cost around $15 million. In December, the trustee council’s accounts held around $155 million of the original $900 received as part of the oil company’s settlement with the State of Alaska.

Exxon had already spent around $2.5 billion dollars on clean up efforts and had been fined another $100 million.

The Eyak Preservation Council, an environmental non-profit based in Cordova, says that no discussions, valuations or negotiations of price have taken place with the KADCO — the South Korean Alaska Development Corporation, which owns the development rights to the Bering River Coal Fields.

A full version of the resolution is expected to be published next week, providing clearer information about the new boundaries of the Valdez Oil Spill Restoration Zone.

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