Alaska editorial: We should close the Exxon chapter of Alaska history

Posted: Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

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Babies born the year of the Exxon Valdez oil spill will be graduating from high school this spring.

They have, in many cases, grown taller than and figured out innumerable ways to outsmart their parents by now. Parents, knowing better but unable to convince these invincible teens, fall back on an oft-repeated line, "you just wait and see."

While these kids have it all figured out, our nation's court system is still trying to figure out one vexing issue: What constitutes suitable punitive damages for the 1989 spoilage of Prince William Sound?

Maybe the third time before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will prove to be the charm. Last month a three-judge panel, including Judge Andrew Kleinfeld of Fairbanks, somewhat grudgingly cut in half a $5 billion jury award saying, oh so correctly, "it is time for this protracted litigation to end."

In dissent, Judge James Browning, said the original $5 billion verdict was fine and that there "is no principled means by which this award should be reduced."

Combined, the judges' statements should be a strong hint for Exxon.

Yet, Exxon's spokesman Dave Gardner stopped short of telling reporters whether the company would appeal the decision and said, "in our opinion the facts of this case do not warrant an award this size."

In the past, Exxon has suggested a paltry $25 million settlement with the 34,000 fishermen and other Alaskans whose property and livelihoods were smeared with the 11 million gallons of goo that seeped from that tanker.

The court's 60-plus page ruling is even-handed and of course we think Exxon should settle. The payment by now is long overdue and the scale of the award compared to the size of Exxon's profit margin is minuscule.

It is clear that Exxon, as is its right, has one chief concern - Exxon. But this fight is horrible for Exxon's image and damaging to the oil industry and Alaska's image as a whole. It's been hard on Alaskans waiting as this keeps dragging on. Exxon should pay up and close this exceedingly long chapter in its history.

Still, even a high school government student might guess that the matter of punitive damage awards in what was clearly a national-scale disaster will ultimately be settled before the U.S. Supreme Court.

All we can do is wait and see.

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