FIVE years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, salmon and herring are scarce, puny, and have apparent genetic defects. Alaskan native Americans swear Prince William Sound shores are silent - barren of seals and other animals that comprise much of their diet. Scientists say at least 10 times as many birds died after the spill as in any other. They've documented mutations, diseases, reproductive failures, and wildlife declines.
Whether these conditions are tied to the 11 million-gallon spill - and whether Exxon should compensate for them after spending $2 billion-plus on cleanup and pledging $1.025 billion over 10 years in a 1991 settlement with federal and state governments - rides on a court duel of scientists.
Trials start in federal and state courts May 2 and June 6 on lawsuits filed by fishermen, native Americans, coastal residents, towns, and others seeking compensation. Attorneys claim no settlement talks are under way.
Translating field-test results into court awards may be difficult. ``The jury will hear two completely different stories. Establishing a strictly scientific link between the spill and the damages is variable,'' said Bob Spies, chief scientist for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, the federal-state panel overseeing government civil spill damages.
Exxon says the environment is blossoming, citing a 1990 record salmon harvest and its own studies. ``We have seen that the Sound is essentially oil-free, and the biological resources and habitats have returned to what we've called the range or natural variation,'' spokesman Dennis Stanczuk said.
But new data released this week by government scientists shows chronic biological problems and ripple effects that may cause ecological imbalance. ``Already this catastrophe ... has rewritten the book on the effects of oil in temperate marine ecosystems,'' said Chuck Meachum of the state Department of Fish and Game. An explosion of sea urchins, for example, the apparent result of a lack of predators like sea otters, may overgraze the environment, said Charles Peterson of the University of North Carolina's Institute of Marine Sciences.
IN the fishing town of Cordova, trial anticipation is keen. ``In this case ... it's more like a murder, if you will, and the perpetrator has yet to go to trail,'' said former Mayor Kelley Weaverling. Many people are ``very adamantly ready to take out a hatchet and go for Exxon,'' said environmental activist Riki Ott. ``Hundreds of millions of dollars of scientific studies have found it to be the most biologically, socially, and economically disruptive spill in history.''
Exxon acknowledges the fishermen's economic problems, but blames other factors like world salmon markets. ``These current hardships ... are more likely resulting from any number of factors,'' Mr. Stanczuk said. Some fishing claims should be excluded from the trial because the state closed some areas after the tanker grounded, Exxon argued.
Exxon failed to persuade United States District Court Judge Russel Holland to drop those complaints, but did get him to throw out claims of cannery workers and seafood processors, tender operators, and wholesalers. He ruled that maritime law provides that, except for commercial fishermen, only those whose personal property has been harmed can recover economic damages for spills. That ruling, on appeal, helps explain plaintiff attorneys' attempts to move all cases to state court, believed to be more favorable.
Litigation resolution may bring little peace to wars over how trustees should spend government settlement money. Environmentalists want government purchases and preservation of native-owned land to preclude coastal clear-cutting. Development boosters want fishery restocking and tourism boosts like docks and an aquarium.
There's a move in the Legislature to loosen environmental controls on the oil industry.
The economic squeeze on North Slope oil producers from low prices may be a disaster, contends Joe Green, who's campaigning against a 5-cent-a-barrel state tax imposed after the spill to generate money for environmental-protection programs. ``The unfortunate truth is the margin of profit up there is extremely low.''