When the Exxon Valdez ploughed into Bligh Reef in 1989 causing one of the greatest environmental crimes of the last century, I remember someone saying “lawyers not yet born will work on this one”. And so that prediction has nearly come to pass.
Five years after the spill a federal jury in Alaska ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion to thousands of people who had their lives ruined spill. The oil giant has fought that verdict ever since and in 2006 a federal court cut the punitive damages to $2.5 billion, saying the amount was more in line with legal precedent.
Tomorrow the case finally lands up in the US Supreme Court, with Exxon still trying to overturn the verdict.
It is time for American justice to prevail and for Exxon to be forced to pay up. But its deadly delaying tactics have already worked. Figures just released show that nearly 20 percent of the 33,000 fishermen, Native Alaskans, cannery workers and others who triumphed in court in 1994 are now dead.
“That’s the most upsetting thing, that more than 6,000 people have passed and this still isn’t finished,” said Mike Webber, a Native Alaskan artistic carver and former fisherman in the Prince William Sound community of Cordova. “Our sound is not healthy, and neither are the people. Everything is still on the surface, just as it was.”
If you can, you should support Alaskans as they converge on Washington tomorrow where a vigil is planned. Mike Webber has even carved a “ridicule pole” from yellow cedar, depicting an Exxon executive with oil flowing from his mouth, which is on its way to Washington.
“It’s painful for people to talk about this,” said Jennifer Gibbons, executive director of the environmental group Prince William Soundkeeper, “but they want closure.”
If Exxon wins it will make a mockery of the US legal system. If it loses, it will already be too late for so many affected by this spill. But for the remaining survivors, it will be better late than never.