As we all know, and as Dr. Bronner pointed out in his article, it’s been over 15 years since the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil along the Alaska coast in one of the country’s worst environmental disasters. It’s difficult to believe that a jury’s $5 billion judgment against the company is still tied up in the courts. But, having dealt with this politically powerful company, I’m not too surprised. ExxonMobil Corp.’s appeal of the Valdez verdict was to be heard for the third time recently in a federal appeals court in San Francisco. As we all know, the case stems from a 1994 decision by an Anchorage jury to award punitive damages to 34,000 fishermen and other Alaskans.
The residents claimed they were harmed when the Valdez struck a charted reef and spilled crude oil along about 1,500 miles of coastline. The captain of the Valdez was drunk and Exxon knew that he had a drinking problem. The jury found Exxon and the Valdez captain reckless in the accident.
Exxon argues it should have to pay no more than $25 million in punitive damages. The corporation, which reported third-quarter earnings of $10 billion, says it has spent more than $3 billion to settle federal and state lawsuits and to clean the Prince William Sound area. In two previous appeals, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland of Anchorage, who was the trial judge, to reduce the judgment against Exxon, saying it was unconstitutionally excessive. Judge Holland complied in 2002, reducing the verdict to $4 billion. Exxon appealed that decision. The trial judge was then ordered by the appeals court to revisit the decision. Judge Holland called Exxon’s actions “reprehensible,” and set the figure at $4.5 billion plus the accrued interest. The appeals court has twice questioned the award, sending it back each time to the trial judge to reduce the verdict. Accrued interest could bring the total amount to around $9 billion.
In the region itself, pockets of relatively fresh Exxon Valdez oil remain on shorelines as distant as Katmai National Park, about 300 miles from the site where the supertanker disgorged 11 million gallons of crude oil, according to government scientists who presented their studies at a conference last month in Anchorage. Jeff Short, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher, says:
This stuff isn’t changing at all. It’s just the same kind of goo that got deposited there in 1989.
According to the group that administers the settlement money paid by Exxon to the governments, only seven of thirty marine species, resources, or services have recovered to pre-spill levels. Whether the spill is to blame and whether remnant oil is causing harm remains unsettled. Prince William Sound residents are convinced that the spill triggered a cascade of environmental ills. As subsistence fishermen and hunters, they still see the effects of that oil spill on a daily basis.
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