Because of an editing error, Alaska Gov. Walter J. Hickel was incorrectly listed yesterday as a Republican. Although most of his political life has been spent with that party, he ran for governor last year as head of the Alaskan Independence Party. (Published 2/9/91)
ANCHORAGE, FEB. 7 -- Alaska Gov. Walter J. Hickel (R) said today that negotiations to settle the massive Exxon Valdez oil-spill case are near completion, and he promised to release all scientific data buttressing state and federal claims against Exxon Corp.
In an interview here, Hickel responded to environmentalists' concerns about the secret negotiations by saying the state has detailed scientific information about costs of the spill in March 1989 and will not allow Exxon to decide how funds might be distributed under the settlement.
Hickel said negotiations with Exxon and federal officials are "going fast" and that he hoped for a conclusion "in two or three weeks. It can't go much longer."
Hickel has proposed that Exxon pay about $1.2 billion to settle state and federal damage claims and that the money be put in trust to create a marine conservation area in Prince William Sound. There, hundreds of miles of beaches were fouled, fishing was disrupted and tens of thousands of birds and other animals were killed after nearly 11 million gallons of oil were spilled when the Exxon tanker ran aground.
The plan also would provide money for more research on the impact of the spill and to purchase of private timber rights in the thickly forested area to prevent further environmental damage from logging.
Studies funded under the proposal, Hickel said, would allow the state to "tell what basically happened at the spill, and if they have spills in other places in the world we can give them . . . information on how to handle it, what happened, what the long-term effect, if any, and make it something of a science center."
Hickel said funds from the settlement would be distributed by state and federal trustees, not Exxon. Environmentalists and some state officials have complained about the way Exxon has spent more than $2 billion on the spill cleanup.
Gregg Erickson, director of the state's Oil Impact Assessment and Restoration Division, told legislators Wednesday that a $20 million bill to Exxon for assessing spill damage has not been paid although "they clearly have enough money to pay for a major media campaign saying everything's fine."
Robert Adler, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, said Hickel's proposal remains "pretty fuzzy" and added, "We and the public have absolutely no way to evaluate the adequacy of the $1.2 billion unless the state and Exxon release their scientific data."
Scientists have expressed frustration at orders from government and company attorneys not to share research while settlement negotiations are underway, but Hickel said all information would become public.
"The kind of settlement we're talking about should take care of all the problems," he said. "We're not giving anything away."
Hickel has raised concern among environmentalists by emphasizing the recreational aspects of the wildlife area that his proposal would create.
"It would be people-related," he said today, including sports fishing and boating. A staff member for one environmental group said this sounded like "a theme park, a Wally World in the wilderness," which was not what many conservationists wanted.
Hickel, elected in November a generation after his first election as governor here in 1966, expressed pride in what he felt was his sound environmental record as governor and as interior secretary during the Nixon administration.
He was fired in 1970 for opposing President Richard M. Nixon's Vietnam policy and seemed willing again to go his own way in settling the spill issue despite political friction.
If there is no settlement, he said, legal costs will devour money that could be used to improve the sound. "One law firm alone was paid $11 million last year," he said. "There are lawyers on both sides that would just seem to be adjudicating forever."