February 7, 2008
Exxon Valdez Victims Launch 'The Whole Truth' Campaign as Case Goes to Supreme Court
Victims of the Exxon Valdez oil spill have launched "The Whole Truth" campaign, http://www.wholetruth.net, in support of the over 32,000 fishermen, women and Alaska Natives suing Exxon to recover damages for economic harm caused by the spill. Nearly two decades after the spill caused irreparable damage to the environment and the economy of Prince William Sound, Exxon has taken its fight to avoid responsibility all the way to the Supreme Court, where oral arguments are scheduled for February 27. While there is no dispute that the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill is one of our nation's worst environmental disasters, Exxon has waged a shameless fight to escape responsibility. "The Whole Truth" campaign is meant to insure that the truth about the irreparable economic damage done to the communities of Prince William Sound be known, and that Exxon finally be held accountable.
"After the spill, Exxon promised to make the people and communities of Prince William Sound whole again," said Steve Reidel of Cordova District Fishermen United (CDFU). "That never happened. Nineteen years later after nearly two decades of broken promises it is finally time for Exxon to take responsibility and make amends for this catastrophe. Justice demands it."
This year marks the nineteenth anniversary of the worst oil spill in American history. Exxon placed Captain Joseph Hazelwood, a known alcoholic, in command of its 1000 foot supertanker, the Exxon Valdez, despite nearly three years of reports that the captain was a heavy drinker. Predictably, Hazelwood was drunk as the tanker left port carrying 53 million gallons of crude oil on board. His estimated blood alcohol level at the time of departure was .241, more than 3 times the current legal limit in most states to operate a vehicle. After setting out he steered the tanker away from the shipping lane, set it on autopilot, and left the bridge. He left a fatigued third mate who was not qualified to navigate through the complex waters of Prince William Sound in charge to execute a tricky maneuver and avoid Bligh Reef. On March 24, 1989 the Exxon Valdez ran aground and ruptured 8 of its 11 tanks, leading to untold billions of dollars in damage to the economy and untold damage to the Sound's environment, which has never fully recovered.
"The fishermen, Native people and citizens of Prince William Sound are speaking with one voice, and the message to Exxon is clear. Take responsibility for what you've done. After nearly 20 years of spin, evasion, and litigation the time has come to hold Exxon accountable and let polluters know that they are not above the law. This is the only way we can protect our nation's waters," said Jennifer Gibbins, Executive Director of Prince William Soundkeeper and one of the principles of The Whole Truth Campaign.
After three days of almost no response, Exxon finally began a clean-up effort but the oil had already spread too far and was beyond containment. The recovery effort was a charade. In a taped conversation, Exxon's representative explained: "....[there] needs to be something out there that looks like an effort is being made." A Congressional report determined that Exxon's response was "wholly inadequate." Ultimately, only 14 percent of the oil was reclaimed. With the fear of oil contamination the State of Alaska was forced to close the fishery for the 1989 season. The following years were met by reduced harvests and depressed fish prices. 1300 miles of private shoreline was damaged some of which remains oiled today. The spill destroyed many subsistence activities of Natives in the area. The economy of the region was crippled, the effects of which are still felt today.
"It is very difficult to articulate the full impact, and more specifically, the losses associated with the Exxon Valdez oil spill," said Travis Vlasoff, a local fisherman in the Native Village of Tatitlek and Project Analyst, Tatitlek Corporation. "The effects to the Native Village of Tatitlek were no less than a complete and utter destruction of countless traditional practices."
"We lost everything," said Mike Webber, a highly respected native commercial fisherman from a Cordova fishing family, who carved a Shame Pole, a traditional totem pole carved to ridicule wealthy people who have a debt to society, to mark the 18th anniversary of the spill. "Our economy has never been the same since. Now, while Exxon racks up multi-billion dollar profits, sometimes in a single quarter, we've been left to fight them for what they owe us for nearly 20 years."
On February 27, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in what has amounted to a near 20-year effort by Exxon to shirk financial responsibility for its actions. The Fishermen and Native Subsistence lawsuit for private economic damages arose after Exxon refused to pay for most of the harm caused. This suit is a class action composed of 32,677 commercial fishermen, related individuals and businesses, private landowners, Native Alaskans, municipalities, and other claimants from across the country. The 83 day jury trial began in 1994 after years of discovery. It proceeded in three phases:
In phase I the jury found that Exxon and Hazelwood had been reckless.
In phase II the jury awarded fishermen in the major commercial fisheries $287 million in compensatory damages for economic harm. Under maritime law, some economic and other types of injury were barred. Outside of phase II other victims recovered economic damages that exceeded $500 million.
In phase III the jury was asked to determine whether Exxon and Hazelwood were liable for punitive damages and if so whether punitive damages should be awarded. The jury returned a verdict against Hazelwood for $5000 and against Exxon for $5 billion dollars.
Exxon appealed, and in 2001 the Ninth Circuit court of appeals affirmed the compensatory verdict and the jury's decision to award punitive damages. On remand the District Court found the $5 billion dollar award was justified but given the Court's evolving law with regard to punitive damages it reduced the award to $4.5 billion. Once again Exxon appealed. On December 22, 2006 a divided Ninth Circuit reduced the award to $2.5 billion. Exxon again challenged that ruling but the court refused to hear the case. On August 20, 2007 Exxon filed a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. On October 29, 2007 the Court agreed to hear the case. Oral arguments are set for February 27, 2008. The nineteenth anniversary of the spill is one month later, March 24.
On January 29, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin announced that the State of Alaska filed an amicus, or "friend of the court," brief supporting the award of punitive damages against Exxon. In a statement, Attorney General Talis Colberg said, "Exxon's arguments, if they prevail, would not only deny Alaskans compensation to which they are due, but would reduce the incentive for those who use our coastal waters to operate in a careful and safe manner."
At issue in this case is the $2.5 billion dollar punitive damage verdict, awarded by a jury to punish Exxon for its irresponsible corporate conduct and recklessness that caused the spill. Although this award breaks down to merely $76,500 per individual plaintiff, Exxon argues that it should not be punished at all. The Whole Truth campaign seeks to provide the complete truth about the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, generate public awareness and support to end Exxon's quest to escape responsibility.
Herring Collapse linked with the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
An important paper on the Prince William Sound herring collapse was published this month in a prestigious international journal, the ICES Journal of Marine Science. While scientists have generally believed that the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill did not cause the collapse of the PWS herring population - because of a four-year gap between the spill and the 1992 collapse, this paper concludes that the decline occurred over a five-year period, rather than the single-year collapse previously reported.
"Herring and the Exxon Valdez oil spill: an investigation into historical data conflicts" is authored by senior Prince William Sound Science Center (PWSSC) scientist, Richard Thorne, and former PWSSC president, Gary Thomas. The authors examined historical patterns of herring spawn, anomalies in historical fisheries model predictions, changes in predation behavior of Steller sea lions, and the PWSSC's decadal database of acoustic measurements of herring biomass. They also show that the behavior of adult herring makes them especially vulnerable to damage from oil spills and conclude the evidence supports the thesis that the start of the PWS herring decline was coincident with the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
In the same journal issue a separate paper, by Peter-John Hulson and others, continues to assert that the main decline started in 1992 although they conclude that alternative views such as Thorne and Thomas', are also consistent with the existing data. Thorne states that both analyses suffer from a lack of data before 1993. "No level of sophisticated post-disaster analysis can replace the routine collections of well-considered environmenal and fisheries management data", Thorne and Thomas conclude. "We support the ultimate conclusion of Hulson et al. (2008) that management would benefit from a comprehensive management framework, as provided by the ASA (age structured analysis model), and a methodology to provide a timely check on potential changes in mortality rates and biomass, as provided by acoustics."
Copies of these publications may be requested from the primary authors (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Alaska Files Exxon Amicus Brief State Supports $2.5 Billion Punitive Damages Award to Alaskans
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Juneau, Alaska, January 29, 2008 - Governor Sarah Palin today announced that the State of Alaska has filed an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief supporting the award of punitive damages against Exxon Mobil stemming from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The State filed its amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed in October to hear Exxon Mobil’s appeal. The case is on appeal from a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding punitive damages of $2.5 billion dollars. Exxon has continued to appeal a 1994 jury award of punitive damages to Alaskans. The State asserts maritime law permits a court to hold Exxon responsible for the conduct of its employee and ship's captain, Joseph Hazelwood.
The State also asserts the federal Clean Water Act does not prevent harmed parties from obtaining punitive damages. The State views such damages as a deterrent to unsafe conduct and as partial compensation for injured parties whose relief is otherwise limited by technical rules of maritime law.
“The State certainly believes Exxon is wrong and has worked very hard preparing a brief to persuade the Supreme Court to affirm the jury’s award,” said Attorney General Talis Colberg. “Exxon’s arguments, if they prevail, would not only deny Alaskans compensation to which they are due, but would reduce the incentive for those who use our coastal waters to operate in a careful and safe manner.”
In conjunction with filing its brief, and at the invitation of counsel for the individuals who were awarded the damages, the State has asked the Supreme Court to allow it time at oral argument to present its views.
Governor Palin thanked Alaska’s state legislators and the Alaska congressional delegation for their separately filed amicus briefs opposing Exxon. She also extended her thanks to the four former Alaska governors, Walter Hickel, Tony Knowles, Steve Cowper and Bill Sheffield, who joined the brief submitted by the Alaska State Legislature.
A copy of the State’s brief is on the Department of Law website at: www.law.state.ak.us.