Alaska politicians react to U.S. Supreme Court ruling on punitive damages

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2008

Public officials in Alaska are reacting strongly to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Wednesday to slash the $2.5 billion damage award to Alaska fishermen to $508 million, nearly 20 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

The first statement out after the early morning Supreme Court ruling was from Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, now running for U.S. Senate, who said he was "angered" by the ruling.

Following Begich was Gov. Sarah Palin, not currently running for anything, and Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak, who is running for U.S. Congress and represents numerous commercial fishermen.

U.S. Senate candidate Mark Begich said he is angered by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling today slashing the punitive damage award for Alaskans hurt by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the worst in U.S. history.

"The thousands of Alaskans whose lives were devastated by this disaster are hurt, once again, by this ruling," Begich said. "What we're seeing today is another example of how Washington is out of touch with real people. The justices have sided with corporate America rather than with Alaska families who have suffered for nearly 20 years."

Begich added that while the livelihoods of thousands of Alaska fishermen and others were destroyed by the spill, Sen. Ted Stevens has continued to work to serve the interests of big business, rather than put pressure on Exxon to settle the lawsuit or drop its appeals.

"Sen. Stevens continues to show he works hard for special interests, but where has he been when it comes to doing what's right for Alaskans?" Begich said.

From Gov. Sarah Palin:

"I am extremely disappointed with today's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court," Palin said. "While the decision brings some degree of closure to Alaskans suffering from 19 years of litigation and delay, the court gutted the jury's decision on punitive damages."

Palin added, "It is tragic that so many Alaska fishermen and their families have had their lives put on hold waiting for this decision. My heart goes out to those affected, especially the families of the thousands of Alaskans who passed away while waiting for justice."

Palin said the decision today undercut one of the principal legs of deterrence for those engaged in maritime shipping in Alaska waters. She called on state and federal agencies to be vigilant and firm in regulating such activities.

Considered one of the worst oil spills in the world, the Exxon Valdez disaster spilled approximately 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. The oil fouled an estimated 1,300 miles of Alaska coastline. The spill killed hundreds of thousands of birds and animals, despoiled the environment and deprived thousands of fishermen and subsistence users of their livelihoods.

Denby Lloyd, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the effects of the oil spill on marine life continue to be felt today.

"The fish and wildlife, as well as the people, of Alaska and Prince William Sound are still feeling the harmful effects of Exxon's actions to this date," Lloyd said. "It will be years more before they fully recover from this tragedy."

From Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux,R-Kodiak:

"This is devastating. This is a gross misinterpretation of maritime law and an insult to Alaska," said LeDoux, who was a practicing lawyer specializing in maritime law before entering politics. "Justice Breyer is absolutely correct in that this is a special case. The original punitive award was cut in half. Now it has been reduced even further and by a ridiculous amount. I'm outraged by this decision along with the rest of the people of Alaska."

As a state Representative from Kodiak, an area severely affected by the massive 1989 oil spill, LeDoux was personally affected by the accident.

"I cannot believe how ExxonMobil has succeeded in hurting thousands of Alaskans who have been waiting nearly 20 years for justice. I am deeply saddened by the court ruling," she said.

Alaska is heavily dependent on the environment for employment and food sources. More than 30,000 people were to have been awarded $5 billion in punitive damages from Exxon in the original ruling.

• Contract reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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