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Remarks and an Informal Exchange With Reporters Following a Meeting With Administration Officials

March 28, 1989

The President. Well, let me just say that we've had a very good meeting here, and I've asked the Secretary of Transportation, Sam Skinner; Mr. Reilly, who's the head of the EPA; and the Commandant of the Coast Guard [Adm. Paul A. Yost] -- all three of whom are here with us now -- to go up to Alaska to take a hard look at where this disaster stands.

There are many Federal agencies involved -- some 14 Federal agencies -- under the national response team, which is cochaired by the Coast Guard and by EPA. And so, a lot is going on. Exxon is in charge, at this moment, of the cleanup, but many of the facilities, much of the equipment that is being used has been promptly furnished by the Coast Guard. And some of the top Coast Guard people in charge of this kind of matter are on the scene.

But I think it's important that these top officials now -- Federal officials -- accompanied by the Commandant, go there, and then they will report to me after they've had a chance to assess the situation on the ground. The congressional delegation and the Governor, of course, have strong feelings on these matters, and we've been in touch with them. But this is a matter of tremendous concern to Alaskans and, indeed, to all of us. The conservation side is important; the energy side is important. And I'll feel much better after Sam Skinner and Bill Reilly and the admiral get a chance to report back.

Alaskan Oil Spill

Q. Mr. President, is Exxon doing enough, do you think, in the cleanup?

The President. Well, I've just had a report that they're certainly making a good beginning here. But there's been some conflicting reports on that, and I don't want to prejudge that. I think one of the things we're interested in hearing is exactly how our top officials feel the cleanup is going.

Q. Mr. President, can civil penalties be imposed against Exxon in addition to having to pay for the cost of the cleanup?

The President. I don't know the answer to that.

Q. Can the Government bring suit?

The President. Sam?

Secretary Skinner. Yes, they can; they can do that. There are civil penalties. There's a variety of legal options that are available. But right now the primary consideration is to make sure everything is being done possibly, and the President has directed us to assess that the oil is being contained and that the oil that remains on the tanker is being off-loaded as quick as possible. That is our primary objective, as mandated by the President -- to assess how that is going. We'll then, later on, worry about who's going to pay for the damage. But there are significant penalties and provisions for reimbursement.

The President. The main thing is to get it cleaned up, to protect a very precious environment up there, and to be sure that everything is being done to clean up this disaster, and then figure out all these penalties and all that other -- --

Q. Does this demonstration -- --

Q. Mr. President, has this changed your opinion on development of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge?

The President. No. I see no connection.

Q. So, you consider this as being an isolated incident?

The President. Well, they've been shipping oil out of here for a long, long time and never had anything of this magnitude or this concern. So, the big thing is to correct it. I don't know how you design against what appears to be the cause here. You have a ship that's out of the channel, going 12 knots, and ripping the bottom out of the most modern tanker that's ever been built to haul this oil. But I think we need to assess the matter and judge it on its demerits and make our conclusions later on.

Q. Is the Government taking over the cleanup one of the options that you're considering?

The President. There is an option for federalization. And then the question is: Is that the most prudent way to go? And that's one of the recommendations I'll be awaiting from Secretary Skinner, Mr. Reilly, Admiral Yost.

Q. When do you anticipate a report, Mr. Secretary, to the President on this?

Secretary Skinner. Our plan is to report by phone as soon as we get up there and get an assessment. We'll be departing in the not-too-distant future, within hours, and hopefully, we'll be reporting to him late this evening or early in the morning, at the very latest.

Q. How long do you expect to be up there at this point?

Secretary Skinner. We're going to be up there as long as it takes to find out what the President has asked us to find out so we can report back to him.

Bipartisan Accord on Central America

Q. Mr. President, can you give us your reaction when you read Boyden Gray's [Counsel to the President] comments in the New York Times Sunday morning -- his public dissent about the Central America agreement?

The President. No, but I shared my reaction with Boyden, which is the way I handle things. [Laughter]

Japan-U.S. Jet Fighter

Q. What's the state of play on the FSX, Mr. President?

The President. Still churning around out there, but we're not ready to say where it stands. We've asked for certain -- insisting on certain clarifications, and we'll let you know. But we're not ready to have an announcement.

Q. Still expect it to be nailed down by Friday?

The President. I don't know, Norm [Norman Sandler, United Press International], whether it will be done by then or not. It's going back and forth a little bit. But all I want to know is that the agreement is clear -- no point in having an unclear agreement. And we have a lot at stake here, a lot at stake in terms of the common defense; we have a lot at stake in terms of commerce; we have a lot at stake in terms of technology. And so, all I'm asking is to be clear. The United States will keep its word, but the United States, properly, is insisting on clarity in the agreement. And that's about where we stand right now. And I just can't give you my view as to when that will be completed.

Q. Well, there are these reports of increasing Japanese concern that this is going to cause some kind of severe damage to relations between the United States and Japan. Are you troubled by those reports?

The President. No, I'm not troubled by them.

Note: The President spoke at 9:40 a.m. in the Oval Office at the White House.

George Bush, Remarks and an Informal Exchange With Reporters Following a Meeting With Administration Officials Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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