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Alaskans try to sink "Valdez' comeback

Pete Kompkoff and the other villagers of Chenega know perfectly well that when the Exxon Valdez hemorrhaged oil onto their shores, it was the crew that was at fault, and not the ship.

However, they are not about to sit back as Exxon Corp. seeks permission in U.S. District Court for the tanker, renamed the Mediterranean, to return to the sound, where in 1989 it unleashed one of the worst environmental disasters.

"It's just like a slap in the face, even though the machine didn't do the damage," said Kompkoff, administrator of a 28-house village tucked onto an island that is part of the sparsely populated sound.

The lawsuit, which will begin its court process in Anchorage March 24, "is an insult," Kompkoff said.

That reaction reflects the deep damage, environmental and emotional, that remains eight years after the tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef and leaked nearly 11-million gallons of crude oil.

The physical damage is easiest to measure. Though the bald eagles are back to their former numbers, experts say, researchers have found that most of the ecosystem is hurting. From mussels to salmon to sea otters, the wildlife is either recovering or, like the populations of harbor seals, harlequin ducks and Pacific herring, devastated.

Most of the oil is gone, said Molly McCammon, executive director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. "But there are beaches where, on a hot sunny day, you can still smell the oil, or you can scuff your foot in the sand and still get to fresh oil," McCammon said. "And what's there now is going to take a long time to go."

The council guides the spending of $900-million that Exxon, the nation's largest oil company, was required to pay in a 1991 civil settlement to finance restoration of the environment.

Along with studying and trying to help the flora and fauna, the council has also begun trying to protect some of the damaged area in perpetuity by helping to buy swatches of land and manage them for the good of the wildlife. Last month, the council joined with the federal government to buy its first major parcel on the sound, 60,000 acres in the hardest-hit area.

But if villagers remain furious, it is in part because the biggest part of financial penalties imposed on Exxon, a $5-billion award by a state jury in 1994 for damage to the thousands of fishermen, landowners and other residents, is being appealed by the oil company. Lawyers expect the lawsuit to be tied up in court so long that many residents wonder whether they will see it resolved in their lifetimes.

With the money held up, the fishermen remain largely uncompensated for their diminished catches. Kompkoff contends that although scientists think that there is no health threat from the oil, gathering food from the shore is like shopping at a grocery where the food might be contaminated.

The council plans to spend nearly $2-million this year to clean eight beaches in the Chenega area, partly to restore villagers' confidence and partly, Kompkoff said, because they need the work. It has been years since the cash bonanzas that they received from helping with the cleanup, which cost Exxon hundreds of millions of dollars.

In November, Exxon settled its insurance claims, receiving $780-million against costs that it says totaled $2.5-billion.

With such lingering problems, an Anchorage Daily News reader suggested recently that the Mediterranean be allowed to return, if the company pays the $5-billion.

The Exxon shipping unit that is bringing the lawsuit, Seariver Maritime Financial Holdings, is challenging the retroactive provision in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The law barred any vessel that had spilled more than 1-million gallons of oil after March 22, 1989 _ the Valdez spill started March 23 _ from ever sailing in the sound. Seariver protests that the provision was meant as punishment for Exxon and constitutes an unconstitutional taking of its property without providing redress.