Alaska's Cleanup

WHEN the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989 it set off more than an environmental and economic disaster. A report recently issued by the General Accounting Office (GAO) confirms what could at best be labeled as inept management, and at worst misapplication of funds.

In 1991 Exxon settled damage claims levied by Alaska and the federal government for a total of $1.025 billion, to be paid over a 10-year period.

Other claims, many by individuals, small businesses, native Americans, fishermen, small communities, and others without the clout of the federal executive, remain to be negotiated.

Many of these would-be claimants haven't the know-how or the money to press their grievances, and during the last two years of the Bush administration apparently little effort was made to encourage, guide, or provide assistance to these Americans.

As for the Exxon settlement, not much of the money from it has gotten into the hands of ordinary Alaskans. Much has gone for activities that have little, if any, relationship to the losses and needs of businesses and people who were supposed to be the prime beneficiaries, the GAO report indicates. It says that projects have been approved that "either do not appear to be directly linked to the oil spill, or appear to duplicate existing responsibilities of federal and state agencies."

At this point, two environmentally sensitive Westerners have joined the battle: US Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and US Rep. George Miller (D) of California.

Mr. Miller says the Bush administration "failed to assure that the Exxon Valdez funds were used wisely to protect natural resources that were affected by the oil spill." Instead, he adds, "the bureaucrats gave top priority to feathering their own nests with reimbursements and gold-plated studies of questionable merit."

Miller notes that government trustees who will pay out funds over the next 11 years, including representatives of the Clinton administration, have improved management of the funds. Mr. Babbitt has promised more federal aid in cleaning up the residual oil that still plagues the fishing grounds of Prince William Sound. If he can work with Alaskan officials, a great deal can be done to right a wrong suffered by America's most rugged frontier state.

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