FOUR years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and nearly two years after the state and federal governments settled with the Exxon Corporation for environmental damages from the disaster, poor management of what critics call the "money spill" has stalled environmental restoration, a government report released this week said.
* Most of the money paid by Exxon so far in the 10-year, $1.025 billion deal has gone to reimburse the United States and Alaska governments and Exxon for cleanup duties already performed and to cover administrative costs of the six-member trustee council set up to administer the fund, said the General Accounting Office (GAO) report.
* Only $19 million of the $240 million paid to date in the civil settlement has been spent on actual environmental repair; no restoration plan is in place, no trust-fund executive director had been hired, and research spending has been subject to cannibalization by government agencies that have turned to the fund to pay for normal functions made more difficult by budget cuts, the GAO said.
* As of February, $40 million was returned to Exxon to cover cleanup costs incurred after 1991, and $107 million was paid to reimburse state and federal agencies for spill-response costs, the agency said.
* Authorized scientific studies have been insulated from competitive bidding from independent scientists, and trustee-council spending on such administrative items as travel has been uncontrolled and unaudited, the GAO said.
The GAO report was ordered by Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, in response to complaints from Alaska environmentalists.
The reimbursements to government agencies for emergency spill-response costs and to Exxon for post-1991 cleanup was a condition of the overall settlement and, to many Alaskans, a bitter provision at the time.
But charges that the fund has been poorly managed drew indignant reactions from Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council members, who defended their work as methodical and responsible.
"Unadulturated nonsense on stilts," Alaska Attorney General Charlie Cole, a state trustee, said of the GAO report.
At a meeting Monday, trustees pointed out that they have planned on tens of millions of dollars still due from Exxon for ecological research. They have committed to two purchases of native American-owned coastal forest tracts that would otherwise be logged and are negotiating other purchases, they said.
Ironically, many observers consider Mr. Cole - who negotiated the settlement with Exxon on the state's behalf - the council's most ardent fiscal guardian and champion of habitat purchases. Cole has won praise from such groups as the Sierra Club for his successful negotiations of land protections in the Kenai Peninsula's Kachemak Bay State Park and the Kodiak area's Seal Bay, as well as his pursuit of forest purchases in the Cordova area, where clear-cutting has split the community.
Until recently, habitat-acquisition proponents had to battle a Bush administration that was philosophically hostile to the concept.
"I'm not too crazy about land buys, to tell you the truth. I think the United States owns too much land already," then-Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan said last summer at a reception to raise money for a campaign supporting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The federal philosophy changed with the Clinton administration. On March 24, the spill's fourth anniversary, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown said $25 million of the federal government's $50 million criminal payment from Exxon would be earmarked for habitat purchases.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, on an Alaskan tour, said at Monday's trustee-council meeting that past troubles should be dismissed. He promised a unified federal stance in favor of habitat acquisition and other direct environmental restoration.
"The important thing is that we move on to the future, and we focus relentlessly on the extraordinary opportunity that we have to make a difference for the citizens of Alaska with this fund," he said.
If the trustees are to blame for acting too slowly to repair spill damages, many Alaska state officials may be accused of ignoring lessons from the disaster.
This year, the Republican-dominated Alaska Legislature cut the state Department of Environmental Conservation's budget by more than 12 percent - a move the department said severely undermined enforcement of laws passed in the spill's aftermath.
The Legislature also eliminated all funding for the Citizens Oversight Council on Oil and Other Hazardous Substances. When the council, a product of post-spill legislation, continued to meet, state Senate majority leader Robin Taylor (R) was scornful. "I guess some people just can't take a hint," he said in June.
For now, environmentalists appear to have turned to the Interior secretary to rescue the coastline, even though he warned: "There's no silver bullet. These are complex ecosystems. It's not just one fish and one place."
Seventy-five-year-old Marie Jones, the last full-blooded Eyak Indian from Prince William Sound, made a personal plea to Mr. Babbitt on Monday. "I give you this with a heavy heart," said a tearful Ms. Jones, as she handed Babbitt a sealed letter detailing ecological ravages around Cordova.
"They are clear-cutting my ancestral lands, which my dad told me to protect as long as I'm alive," she told reporters. Of Babbitt, she said: "I have faith in him."