The United States has ended all litigation stemming from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, closing the books on a 25-year legal saga over one of the 20th century’s worst environmental disasters.
The Justice Department cited the recovery of duck and sea otter populations as the reason for its decision not to press for more damages.
Around 11 million gallons (42 million liters) of crude spilled off the coast of Alaska in March 1989 when the tanker ran aground on a reef. Images of birds covered in oil traumatized America.
In its immediate impact, the spill is estimated to have killed up to 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 seals and 22 killer whales.
The longer term effects turned out to be worse than expected. The herring industry, for instance, which until then was bustling, collapsed in 1993.
A legal battle spanning the 1990s and 2000s ensued as Exxon was ordered to pay damages and the company filed appeal after appeal to try to get the amount reduced.
The oil giant ultimately had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and interest and spent billions cleaning up the mess.
A ruling in 1991 allowed Alaska and the federal government to demand another 100 million dollars from Exxon in the event animal and plant populations declined significantly.
In 2006, it was estimated the populations of harlequin ducks and sea otters in the Prince William Sound, which was ground zero of the disaster, continued to suffer from the presence of subsurface oil residue. US authorities called on Exxon to do something about it.
But nine years later “scientists have concluded that exposure to the subsurface oil is no longer biologically significant to these species,” the Justice Department said in a statement Thursday.
Populations of harlequin ducks and sea otters have returned to their pre-spill levels, so the government plans no further litigation against Exxon, the department said.