As debate rages over the amount of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico from deepwater well leak BP can't stop, plenty of oil spill watchdogs in Alaska think that the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in 1989 was nearly three times its official size of 11 million gallons.
At one time, state lawyers pushed to verify the size of the spill, which killed thousands of birds and otters, hundreds of seals and eagles and damaged the livelihoods of many fishermen. However, the state's interest in the matter ended after it settled its pollution case against the company in 1991 for $1 billion.
Riki Ott, a Cordova activist, writer and fisherman, says a better estimate of the Exxon oil spill is 30 million gallons. She cites calculations made in 1991 by a marine surveyor the state hired to investigate the spill's size.
Judging by the amount of oil that landed on 1,300 miles of Alaska coastline, "there's no reason to believe 11 million gallons," said Walt Parker, who headed the Alaska Oil Spill Commission created in the Exxon Valdez aftermath.
However, 11 million gallons has become the official number. The Coast Guard accepted it. The number has been used in media accounts and scientific journals for the past 21 years. Lawyers for oil-spill class-action plaintiffs didn't challenge it.
The size of the Valdez spill was a significant factor that an Anchorage jury considered when it assessed damages against Exxon. The jury in 1994 determined that Exxon should pay $5 billion in punitive damages, based in part on the estimate. The U.S. Supreme Court reduced the damages to $500 million in 2008.
Now, as oil continues to pour into the Gulf of Mexico from a BP well, the amount spilled is certain to be key evidence in the court battles that are certain to follow. Legal experts have said that a lower estimate could save BP millions.
Federal scientists' calculations on May 27 put the volume of the Gulf oil leak between 500,000 gallons and 1 million gallons per day, much larger than the ballpark estimate BP and the Coast Guard had provided in previous weeks. Unless the well can be sealed off, officials expect it to continue leaking until August. That's when BP is expected to finish drilling a relief well capable of stopping the flow.
"Practically every aspect of responding to an oil spill is contingent on knowing the scope of the problem they are dealing with," said Jeff Short, a former federal scientist who studied the aftermath of the Exxon spill. He now works for the environmental group Oceana.
The Gulf gusher has leaked 23 million to 46 million gallons of oil, according to federal estimates.
Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers recently said the company doesn't have any better numbers to offer for the Valdez spill now than it did 21 years ago.
The size of the Exxon spill came from Exxon and its contractors, but it never received a complete investigation from state or federal regulators.
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Many records from the state's case against Exxon eventually were turned over to the University of Alaska at Anchorage library system, where they are housed in a special archive devoted to the oil spill.
The records from the case show that just weeks before the 1991 settlement, the state-hired investigator, Texas marine surveyor Jim Murchison, told the Alaska Department of Law that the 11 million gallon estimate provided by an Exxon contractor, Caleb Brett, had "serious deficiencies."
Caleb Brett used some simple math: It subtracted the volume of oil removed from the damaged Exxon Valdez from the nearly 54 million gallons of oil the tanker was carrying before grounding on Bligh Reef.
However, Murchison was certain that the Exxon Valdez's damaged oil tanks were holding seawater, not just crude oil, and wanted the state to get records that would prove him right or wrong. The tanks on the ship had "large holes" in them, and seawater would have forced its way into them when the oil gushed out, he wrote in a memo to a state attorney in September 1991.
Murchison wasn't the first to question the spill size, according to press accounts at the time. Salvage boat captain Nikki Hennessy, who responded to the spill, publicly disputed the 11 million figure in 1989, based on his observations at the scene and his belief that seawater had filled the tanks. Hennessy thought that Exxon pumped large amounts of seawater into three tankers that came to remove oil from the disabled ship, and the company counted the seawater as oil.
Murchison calculated the size of the Exxon spill at 25 million gallons, at minimum.
"Just between you and me, it looks like a giant conspiracy to understate the amount lost to the sea and overstate the amount recovered from the vessel," he wrote in a memo to a state attorney.
The civil case was settled on Oct. 9, 1991, and the state dropped the investigation.
State officials later said they were more concerned about how much oil landed on the beaches. Also, using the amount of barrels spilled to calculate a fine would have resulted in a lower payment than what the state received through the settlement, they said.
Findlay Abbott is an Exxon Valdez class-action plaintiff who has tried unsuccessfully for years to get the 11 million gallon figure reconsidered for that case. He said recently he understands the difficulty of calculating the size of the Gulf leak, thousands of feet underwater. But he remains outraged that government officials never verified the size of the Exxon spill, which he believes could be easily determined using the records that Murchison had requested.
"The evidence is overwhelming, but people don't care. I just had a weird feeling that no one wants to know," Abbott said.
Abbott is still typing up legal filings. Though his previous motions in the class-action case have failed, he filed one just a few weeks ago, in which he claimed the plaintiff attorneys had opposed his efforts to "bring truth to the record and show the full reprehensibility of Exxon's behavior."