21 years later Exxon still fights liability for the Valdez oil spill

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons of North Slope crude oil into the Alaska’s Prince William Sound, one of the cleanest, most unspoiled coastal ecosystems in America. More than two decades later, animals and residents continue to suffer from the spill’s devastating effects, and scientists say that it could be another 2 decades before the area fully recovers.

However, even though millions of fish, sea birds, bald eagles, seals, otters, whales and other creatures suffered agonizing deaths as a result of Exxon’s spill, and even though many of the local communities so dependent on fishing for their survival have been economically, environmentally and socially decimated, Exxon continues to fight its legal and ethical obligations to compensate residents for their losses, leaving taxpayers to pay for the massive cleanup efforts.

In 1994, a judge and jury found ExxonMobil “reckless” for the incident and ordered the company to pay $5 billion in punitive damages to 34,000 victims. Arguing that it needs to pay only $25 million in damages, ExxonMobil has appealed every verdict since the original ruling, bogging down American courtrooms and dragging victims through 14 years of litigation. About 6,000 plaintiffs have died while awaiting compensation.

Making matters worse, in 2006, Exxon’s damages were cut in half to $2.5 billion by a new Supreme Court restriction on punitive damages. Still, Exxon has asked the court to reconsider.

To put this into perspective, Exxon recently announced that its profits were up by 38 percent and that it earned $6.3 billion in the first quarter of 2010 alone.

Amazingly, ExxonMobil continues to claim that the ecosystems and communities affected by the Valdez spill have fully recovered even though federal, state, and independent scientists consistently find that the damage is extensive and ongoing.

A 2006 study found that only one third of species and services harmed by the Exxon spill have recovered, and seven have not improved at all since 1989. The vital herring industry remains closed, forcing generations of fishermen into bankruptcy and destroying the native way of life. Moreover, according to the group Exxpose Exxon, “Workers were sickened by chemicals used to clean the oil, property was damaged, and psychological problems, divorce, and alcohol abuse increased.”

The damage was so extensive that “Bob Van Brocklin, then-mayor of the hard hit town of Cordova and a generational fisherman himself, took his own life after watching his community suffer years of ecological and financial wreckage,” Exxpose Exxon reports. Brocklin’s suicide note mentioned Exxon and the company’s destruction of his community.

Exxon boldly asserts that it spent $2.2 billion on clean-up efforts in Prince William Sound, yet most of that money actually came from taxpayers and insurance companies. Nevertheless, Exxon wrote off nearly $3 billion in spill-related expenses on its tax returns prior to 1994, effectively handing the bill for the disaster it created to American taxpayers.

And now, more than 20 years later, scientists are finding that the oil is still working its way into the ecosystem in both expected and unforeseen ways. And Exxon continues to lie, cheat and steal its way out of liability.

Furthermore, Exxon has taken no extra precautions since 1989 and still ships millions of gallons of fuel in single-hull tankers like the Valdez rather than tankers reinforced by a double hull. Why go to the expense of taking preventative measures, after all, when punitive damages and years of court battles amount to nearly nothing?

With BP’s massive oil leak spreading throughout the Gulf of Mexico, we can’t afford to just hope that the company will assume full responsibility at any cost. We must pressure legislators to hold oil giants accountable for the disasters they create and stop placing the burden on the backs of American taxpayers.