Exxon faces the price of oil spills

THE jury's halfway home in the case of the Exxon Corporation and its disastrous oil tanker spill [in Alaska]. Their verdict found the company and its Valdez captain guilty of recklessness, and in so doing opened the floodgates for the collection of punitive damages.

The federal court case was brought by more than 10,000 commercial fishermen, property owners, and natives of Alaska. And what remains now is for the same set of jurors to put a dollar amount on the damages. Sixteen and a half billion dollars is the price plaintiffs have put on the mess, making out-of-court settlements a distinct consideration.

Although $16.5 billion might be going overboard, Exxon should count on being held liable for what was, and what remains, the worst oil spill in the history of this nation. In the five years since 11 million gallons of oil spilled into Alaska's Prince William Sound there has been a never-ending stream of legal explanation. And less remedy. The crux of the issue remains that the company tolerated a captain with a drinking problem, and that the captain was under the influence and was in command of the supertanker when it went off course and plowed into Bligh Reef....

[Exxon] still does not seem to understand that there's a difference between a tragic accident and a foolhardy, negligent - call it reckless - horror. And it has a price.

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