Nov. 15, 2001 Alaska Newspapers Inc. on the Exxon Valdez punitive damage decision

Posted: Monday, November 19, 2001

Exxon agrees with the decision by a federal appeals court that a $5 billion punitive damage award for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill is too much.

The oil giant claims it has made up for its error by helping Prince William Sound recover. It says it has already spent more than $3 billion in cleanup costs and compensation.

It was clearly not enough.

Oil is still being cleaned from Snug Harbor, 55 miles southwest of Bligh Reef where the oil tanker ran aground. Sea otters and sea ducks that live in the sound continue to show an elevated level of an enzyme that has been traced to the Exxon Valdez oil. Stocks of Pacific herring have still not recovered, and the fishery has been closed since 1993. Salmon have returned, though in far smaller numbers than before the spill.

Perhaps what has changed most are the people. Fishermen lost their livelihoods as fisheries collapsed and the price of permits plummeted. Many families in and around Cordova are still struggling and are deep in debt.

Eleven million gallons of crude oil spread across 1,500 miles of coastline is not an easy problem to fix.

Yet Exxon still claims that the Sound is fully recovered, that the environment has extraordinary healing properties. The company, now Exxon Mobil Corp., has eagerly taken advantage of the lack of scientific work done before the spill to claim that recovery can't be determined because it has no basis for comparison.

The appeals court ruled that the $5 billion verdict, proposed by an Anchorage jury in 1994, was excessive. The court has asked a lower court to reduce the amount.

The appeals court has erred. The health of the sound cannot be measured in dollar value. It is priceless, and no compensation is too much.


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