Eighteen years after captain Joseph Hazelwood radioed that the oil tanker Exxon Valdez had "fetched up hard aground" on Alaska's Bligh Reef, the battle over environmental damage and financial liability may be nearing conclusion after years of legal wrangling.
The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a $2.5 billion punitive damages judgment against ExxonMobil, which means the US Supreme Court is likely to settle the case.
Meanwhile, not all animal species have fully recovered from what was the largest oil spill in US history, and more than 30,000 people affected by the spill are still waiting for what they call adequate compensation.
Some 11 million gallons of crude were dumped into the Prince William Sound that day in March 1989. Winds, tides, and currents spread much of it over 10,000 square miles and 1,200 miles of rocky beach. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds, fish, and other animals were killed. Tens of thousands of fishermen, cannery workers, native Alaskans, and others were affected.
Though it's been more than 18 years since the spill, a federal study earlier this year concluded that oil has persisted below the surface of exposed shores and that the remaining oil is declining by only about 4 percent a year. Particularly persistent is the thick, emulsified goo known as "oil mousse."
"Our results indicate that the remaining subsurface oil may persist for decades with little change," researchers from the National Marine Fisheries Service and other agencies concluded in a report published in February. "Such persistence can pose a contact hazard to inter-tidally foraging sea otters, sea ducks, and shorebirds, create a chronic source of low-level contamination, discourage subsistence in a region where use is heavy, and degrade the wilderness character of protected lands."
Last year, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which oversees ecosystem recovery in Prince William Sound, painted a mixed picture.
Some species, including bald eagles, harbor seals, and river otters, have recovered to prespill levels. But others – killer whales, sea otters, mussels, and clams among them – have not fully recovered. Pacific herring, which are commercially valuable as well as being a source of food to marine mammals, birds, invertebrates, and other fish, appear not to be recovering, and at one point the fishery had collapsed with only 25 percent of the expected adults returning to spawn, according to the oil spill trustee council.
ExxonMobil Corp. disputes claims by biologists, fishermen, and others that the damaging effects continue, including drop-offs in herring and some salmon runs. On its website, ExxonMobil asserts that "hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies conducted by researchers from major independent scientific laboratories and academic institutions" have proved that "the environment in Prince William Sound is healthy, robust and thriving."
The Texas-based oil giant points out that it already has spent some $3 billion on environmental cleanup, government settlements, fines, and compensation.
But on May 23, the Ninth Circuit Court upheld a $2.5 billion punitive damages judgment against ExxonMobil, which originally had been set at $5 billion by a federal jury in 1994.
Among the plaintiffs in the case are some 33,000 fishermen, cannery workers, business owners, native Alaskans, and others.
In its ruling last month – its third in the case since 1994 – the appeals court declared, "It is time for this protracted litigation to end." Plaintiffs agree, noting that at least 6,000 of those who originally claimed to have been harmed by the massive oil spill have since died.
Earlier this year, ExxonMobil reported the largest-ever annual profit by a US company – $39.5 billion in net income. At their annual meeting in Dallas this week, company executives faced a vocal minority of shareholders demanding that ExxonMobil set goals for reducing greenhouse gases and committing to invest more in renewable energy sources.
So far, ExxonMobil has declined to join BP, ConocoPhillips, and Shell as part of the US Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of corporations and environmental groups pushing for binding legal limits on greenhouse gases.
After the 1989 spill, the Exxon Valdez was banished from Prince William Sound, renamed the "SeaRiver Mediterranean," and sent to other parts of the world. In 1990, Congress passed a law banning single-hulled tankers like the Valdez from domestic waters by 2015.
Meanwhile, in Cordova, Alaska – the fishing village most devastated by the oil spill – villagers recently erected a "ridicule pole." It's a traditional native yellow cedar totem pole mocking a company official's promise shortly after the Exxon Valdez ran aground: "We will do whatever it takes to keep you whole."