Ruling stuns spill victims

Texas company says it worked to address impacts

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Sylvia Lange took a 40-minute shower to calm down.

Temple University Via The Associated Press
Temple University Via The Associated Press

The Cordova woman had just heard that a divided U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday slashed the punitive damages award in the nation's worst oil spill ever. Instead of paying $2.5 billion, Exxon Mobil Corp. - the world's largest oil company - will instead shell out $507.5 million, a fraction of the $5 billion originally imposed by a federal jury in 1994.

"A side of me is shocked, but the fatalistic side of me has seen Exxon win from day one," said Lange, 55. "I don't want to turn into a cynical old broad, but I have become a very skeptical person and that started on day one."

Like scores of others in her coastal fishing town, Lange is among 33,000 plaintiffs in the case. The payout translates to an average of $15,000, although many plaintiffs were in line to receive much more.

The 5-3 ruling comes almost two decades after the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground at Alaska's Bligh Reef in 1989, spurting 11 million gallons of crude into the rich fishing waters of Prince William Sound that so many Cordova residents rely on for their livelihoods.

Lange used to commercially fish for salmon and haul for the lucrative herring fishery, which crashed for good several years after the spill. But she said the ruling is about more than money.

It's also about the end of Alaska Native traditions and a subsistence lifestyle for several villages in the region. Because of the spill, many Alaska Natives were forced to stop harvesting seal, salmon and herring roe and move to urban areas, never to return, said Lange, who is part Aleut and Tlingit.

"A cultural link was definitely broken," she said.

The spill killed hundreds of thousands of birds and other marine animals, inflicting environmental injuries that have not fully recovered, according to numerous scientific studies.

Exxon maintained that many studies found the area healthy and thriving, countering findings of continuing damage. The Texas company, which posted a $40.7 billion profit last year, had said that punitive damages would be excessive punishment beside the $3.4 billion in cleanup costs, compensatory payments and fines it already has paid.

"The Valdez oil spill was a tragic accident and one which the corporation deeply regrets," Exxon said in a prepared statement Wednesday. "We know this has been a very difficult time for everyone involved. We have worked hard over many years to address the impacts of the spill and to prevent such accidents from happening in our company again."

Mike Lytle, a third generation Cordova fisherman, said many of the local crews were out with the salmon fishing fleets Wednesday, but those remaining in town were walking around stunned, shaking their heads. A lot of people he knows were planning their retirements on the punitive damages they waited so long for.

Lytle, 56, said his share would have amounted to about $800,000 under the $2.5 billion award. He wondered how much of the smaller take will go to his attorneys.

"I always felt that big oil was going to win," he said. "But now I found out what the true meaning of punitive damages is: puny."

Robert J. Kopchak lost a quarter of his earnings when the herring fishery crashed in the early 1990s. Adding to his family's burden at the time, he still owed thousands of dollars on two herring permits that had cost a total of $150,000 and are worthless today.

Punitive damages and compensatory damages already paid to plaintiffs don't begin to pay for that loss alone, he said.

"It really hurts," he said of Wednesday's ruling. "It gives big business the formula they need to calculate the cost of their actions when they destroy the environment. This gives them the formula to calculate their risk, period."

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