David Whitney Daily News Washington Bureau 02/04/98 ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Final Page B1

U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski , who has criticized the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council for spending too much money on land acquisitions, has asked congressional investigators to audit its books.

Deborah Williams, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's top Alaska aide, said she welcomes the audit.

"We believe this will show that we've implemented outstanding processes and met the terms and conditions of the court settlement," she said.

The trustee council, made up of representatives of state and federal agencies, is responsible for spending the $900 million in proceeds from Exxon Corp.'s settlement of civil and criminal cases arising from the 1989 Alaska oil spill. The settlement fund is overseen by the U.S. District Court in Anchorage.

Under current plans, the trustee council will spend about $380 million on land acquisition. By the time the last anticipated deal is closed, the trustees expect to have picked up title or conservation easements to about 700,000 acres.

That acreage includes about 1,000 miles of coastline that was oiled after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef nearly nine year ago.

Murkowski , chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he believes more money should have been dedicated to studying and protecting "human" uses of the spill area rather than buying private property for inclusion in state or federal reserves.

"The audit will show where expenditures have gone and what administrative and legal expenses there have been," Murkowski said in a telephone interview.

Murkowski said he anticipates that his committee will hold a hearing on the trustee council's activities after the audit is completed.

The request for an audit by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the Congress, was contained in a Dec. 18 letter to the GAO. Murkowski made the letter public Tuesday.

"Concerns have been raised regarding implementation and administration of this historic settlement and whether or not the terms of it have been met," Murkowski wrote.

"Concerns such as the amount of past, present and future expenditures on administration and habitat acquisitions vs. enhancement appear to be legitimate issues to review as well as the relationship of the purchase price of acquisitions to the appraised values," Murkowski said.

Some of the land purchases by the council, though from willing sellers, have been at prices exceeding what federal appraisers have said the properties are worth. The council has defended the expenditures, saying that the property is so unique -- in most instances, lands that have no comparative values -- that the price has been well worth the investment.

The idea behind the land acquisitions has been to protect the areas from logging or other forms of development in an effort to ease environmental stresses along areas affected by the 11 million-gallon spill.

Murkowski and others have complained that the money might have been better spent to help people who live in the spill zone, including for research into improved fisheries technology.


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