15 years After Exxon Valdez, The Coast Remains Polluted & Compensation Is Unpaid
Shortly after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, a senior Exxon representative visited the devastated fishing communities of southern Alaska and promised them the company would do everything in its power to restore their livelihoods and "make them whole".
"We're Exxon, we do it right," is the slogan that has stuck in the mind of Dune Lankard, a local Native American activist.
But 15 years to the day since a drunken sea captain drove his oil tanker on to a reef in Prince William Sound, covering one of the world's most pristine stretches of coastline with at least 11 million gallons of crude, the feeling among fishermen, environmentalist activists and the lawyers representing them is that Exxon has not only broken its original promise but has gone out of its way to betray them in pursuit of broader corporate interests.
Exxon, whose net income for 2003 is expected to top $21bn, has not paid out a penny of the $5bn (£2.7bn) in damages originally awarded to the fishing communities a decade ago, launching appeal after appeal and deluging the courts with paperwork. Despite intensive clean-up efforts, Prince William Sound remains polluted by large oil deposits that have destroyed its herring fisheries and wreaked havoc with the once-flourishing wildlife.
The town of Cordova, whose fishermen could once count on earning $100,000 a season, has become an outpost of despair, where debt and destitution have given rise to alcoholism, drug abuse, broken marriages and numerous suicides. About 1,000 of the original 32,000 plaintiffs in the class-action suit against Exxon have died, many of them succumbing to respiratory illnesses, brain tumours and cancers that a growing body of scientific evidence has linked to the spill and the subsequent clean-up.
Of the survivors, many hang on, ever more despondently, for the Exxon settlement money to arrive. Others have been forced to sell up and move away, returning in the summer months to fish what they can from the Snake river as the debt on their boats and their once highly valuable fishing permits continues to accumulate.
"Exxon has dodged its responsibility every step of the way," Mr Lankard said. "The company had every opportunity to go beyond the call of duty. Instead, they've understood that their hand gets stronger the longer they wait. And in the meantime, people are dying."
Yesterday, a large delegation of Cordovans and their supporters were in Washington to lobby the Bush administration to reopen the federal government's own suit against Exxon and force the company to pay out an extra $100m in environmental damages. That extra money was written into the original 1991 settlement for environmental damages - worth $900m - in the event that oil damage proved more extensive than foreseen.
The fear of environmental activists, however, is that both the Bush administration and Alaska's leading elected officials would prefer to defer to the oil industry and let Exxon off the hook. Alaska's attorney general, Craig Tillery, has said it may be "premature" to present a case for the extra $100m, which must be claimed by 2006.