Exxon's Alaska Oil Spill Case Heads to High Court On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of heavy crude oil in the icy waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound. Nineteen years later, Exxon and those affected by the disaster are still arguing over punitive damages, and the case is now before the Supreme Court. It will be heard in February.
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Exxon's Alaska Oil Spill Case Heads to High Court

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Exxon's Alaska Oil Spill Case Heads to High Court


Exxon's Alaska Oil Spill Case Heads to High Court

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Almost two decades have passed since the worse oil spill in North American history. The Exxon Valdez slammed into a reef, spilling millions of gallon of heavy crude oil into the waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound. The impact has lingered in the surrounding areas ecologically, financially and legally. Exxon is still fighting with those affected by the disaster. And this week, the case reaches the Supreme Court.

Elizabeth Arnold reports.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD: Mike Webber, an Alaskan native, has carved a seven-foot totem pole out of yellow cedar. It's called a ridicule or shame pole.

Mr. MIKE WEBBER (Resident, Alaska): You know, ridicule pole is to shame a person of well, to pay unpaid debts.

ARNOLD: Webber, a quiet man whose eyes are always on the sea, is one of 33,000 fishermen, cannery workers, landowners and natives still seeking recompense from Exxon. He points to a likeness of former Exxon CEO Lee Raymond on the pole.

Mr. WEBBER: My main idea was to get this oil spill coming out of the mouth of Lee Raymond's. Kind of like oil is breaching out of a tanker. And then in the middle of the oil slick, and to put in this quote, we will make you whole again.

ARNOLD: We will make you whole again is what Exxon spokesman assured a hall packed with fishermen in Cordova 19 years ago. He was shouted down.

(Soundbite of shouting)

ARNOLD: The beaches were black and oil-coated eagles, sea otters and harlequin ducks were washing up the thousands. People look out at the slick which spread over 3,000 square miles and knew their lives had changed forever. Mike Webber was 30 years old at the time, a successful fisherman like his father and grandfather before him.

Mr. WEBBER: And I was a happy camper because, you know, you get a lot of pride and a lot of dignity to accomplish things that you shoot for. But basically, the oil spill really taken all those goals, and those are dreams that we've lost.

ARNOLD: To date, Exxon has paid almost $3.4 billion in fines and restoration. $300 million of that also was paid in out-of-court settlements for economic injury. But Mike Webber and thousands more seeking compensation haven't seen a dime.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

ARNOLD: The once thriving fishing town of Cordova has never quite recovered economically from the spill. It's a one-sided story here. At the outset, there was money to be made. Many hired out their boats and planes for Exxon and the media. These self-described spillionaires made top dollar. But it was short-lived. Webber painted dollar signs out of his own blood to represent them on his totem pole.

Mr. WEBBER: In a way, the people made a lot of money out of the oil spill. But then there again, whatever they made, they reinvested it into fishery. And then the fishery declined.

ARNOLD: Lucrative herring fishery here has been closed 12 of the 19 years since the spill due to lack of fish.

(Soundbite of waves)

ARNOLD: Just how much the oil impacted beaches like this and the sound's entire ecosystem from kelp beds to killer whales has been argued in courtrooms for nearly two decades now. Government and industry scientists continue to disagree. Exxon maintains the sound has been restored to its former self. Spokesman Mark Boudreaux.

Mr. MARK BOUDREAUX (Spokesman, Exxon): It is. And there have been 350 peer-reviewed studies since about we believe resoundingly demonstrate the recovery of Prince William Sound.

ARNOLD: It was widely believed just after the spill that the oil would dissipate over time due to normal forces - tides and storms. And most of it did. But Jeff Short, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric researcher, has conducted long-term studies of what's called lingering oil - oil that's been trapped in intertidal areas. What he discovered last year surprised even him.

Mr. JEFFREY SHORT (Researcher, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): What's there now is going to be there for decades. And it's not too different chemically from what it was the summer of 1989. I suspect you'll find traces of it on more heavily impacted beaches at the end of the century.

ARNOLD: Exxon doesn't disagree but maintains that this lingering oil is insignificant and not a threat. Again, spokesman Boudreaux.

Mr. BOUDREAUX: The oil residue is not bio accessible - that means it's not having any - posing any ecological risk to any of the species that remain in the sound.

ARNOLD: Still, those who once harvested wildly from the sound now pick their spots warily. It may look Sierra Club calendar perfect but there's oil just beneath the surface. John Devens has been angry for 18 years. He was mayor of Valdez at the time of the spill.

Mr. JOHN DEVENS (Executive Director, Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council): Exxon can say all they want. And I mean they have bought a lot of scientists who have said it's not causing any more problems. But the people that live out there and used - I mean, subsistent users - they know damn good and well there's oil on those beaches.

ARNOLD: But along with lingering oil and lingering anger, there are other more positive byproducts of the spill. It was the catalyst for new regulatory legislation like OPA, the Oil Protection Act. Nearly a billion dollars of the civil settlement went to restore, replace and enhance or acquire the equivalent of injured natural resources. And that's meant new protected habitat, new science and new oversight.

Today, there isn't a tanker that moves in Prince William Sound without a tug escort and close monitoring. Devens, the former mayor of Valdez is now the executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Advisory Council, a powerful citizen's oversight group that, among other things, takes a hard look at every company's oil spill response or contingency plan.

Mr. DEVENS: So today, we're arguing regularly with the shippers over their contingency plan. Back in '89, you had one barge, got a hole in it. It was up on the beach, and it was covered with snow. I mean, today, that sort of thing wouldn't happen.

ARNOLD: But talk of any silver lining from the spill brings scowls from some who scrub the oil from the hulls of their boat they could no longer use to make a living. New laws, new science and new monitoring haven't been enough to heal those wounds. And most doubt even the settlement with Exxon over damages will do that.

Mike Webber doesn't fish much anymore. But from his home in Cordova, you can see the sea from all three directions. And piles of nets still sit in his yard. He says he thought that carving the shame pole would bring some kind of resolution but it hasn't.

Mr. WEBBER: There really wasn't much healing in it. As a carver, when I was carving the pole, I think the only thing that I felt good about was the four people that were standing together on the bottom of the pole. Now, they still had strength. Speaking for myself, (unintelligible) still got pride and still got a lot of heart. We're still hanging in there. And that, you know, says something.

ARNOLD: The Supreme Court is expected to decide case in the coming months.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Arnold in Anchorage.

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