ARI SHAPIRO, host:
The Supreme Court ended a lawsuit yesterday against Exxon Mobil over an Alaskan oil spill that took place almost 20 years ago. The court dramatically reduced the amount the company has to pay in punitive damages.
Instead of $2.5 billion, the company now has to pay just over $500 million. It's punishment for spilling millions of gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, when the tanker Valdez ran aground there.
More than 30,000 fishermen and others brought the suit, and Amy Bracken of member-station KCHU has a reaction from the Alaskan fishing village of Cordova.
AMY BRACKEN: It's the day Cordovans hoped they would be celebrating around bonfires fueled by mountains of court papers. But on the rain-pelted docks where fishermen untangle gill nets and repair old vessels, there's a sense of heartbreak.
Jerry Lundley(ph) is helping out on his son's boat. Lundley retired after four decades of fishing off Cordova.
Mr. JERRY LUNDLEY (Retired Fisherman, Cordova, Alaska): This town is dying. Cordova has been very much impacted since 1989, and it really hasn't gotten back off its knees.
BRACKEN: Before the high court's decision, he hoped for a million-dollar award. Now he estimates it'll be closer to $100,000. Lundley says he's gotten by with other businesses, but he sees this slashed award as a blow to a struggling community. The average plaintiff can expect $15,000.
Mr. LUNDLEY: The economy here is not good. This might put a little bit of money back in the economy, but it's not going to be enough.
BRACKEN: As if to demonstrate, another plaintiff, Leif Weathers(ph), walks down the dock with a box of shirts. He's packing to move to an area less expensive and with more fishing. The Supreme Court's ruling was like a kick out the door.
Mr. LEIF WEATHERS (Cordova, Alabama): It really seems like a huge, global, you know, monster just got away with it. You know, it's not about the personal money to me. It's more that they make so many billion dollars each quarter, and it was too much to pay to fix up the sound afterwards.
BRACKEN: In a statement released after the ruling, Exxon reiterated its regret for what it calls a tragic accident. The company says it's already paid more than $3 billion in cleanup, compensation, fines and other expenses. And some involved in the suit are ready to move on.
Brad Kimberland(ph) of neighboring oil town Valdez, worked in the region's herring fishery before the spill. The herring population has since crashed. But he recognized the capriciousness of fishing and diversified. He now has a water taxi in Prince William Sound, which brings him to Cordova today.
Mr. BRAD KIMBERLAND (Water Taxi Driver, Valdez, Alaska): I look at it like, you know, fisheries come and go, and you're involved in one, and I'm just glad that they finally have come to a conclusion. You know, there's some people that it affected a lot more than me that probably should have gotten a larger settlement than they did, but you know, such is life. You know, move on. Let go.
BRACKEN: But that's a struggle for the vast majority in Cordova and other towns along the 1,300 of spill-affected coastline. Sue Johnson is president of the Tatitlek Village Council. In this and other native communities, the spill accelerated a decline in subsistence living.
Ms. SUE JOHNSON (President, Tatitlek Village Council, Alaska): I mean, we were hoping for the decision to be benefiting us, but now that it hasn't, I would sit another 20 years to wait for justice to be served the way it was supposed to be.
BRACKEN: For NPR News, I'm Amy Bracken in Cordova, Alaska.
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