As checks near, fishermen resigned to disappointment

EXXON VALDEZ: Decision clearing way for payments could come as soon as today.

November 11, 2008 

After a nearly 20-year wait, thousands of commercial fishermen and other plaintiffs are on the brink of collecting punitive damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.

The checks won't be anything like the blockbuster payments many hoped for after a federal jury awarded them $5 billion -- an amount the U.S. Supreme Court this summer cut by 90 percent.

Still, dozens of fishermen can expect checks for more than $100,000. And a few will range up to around $400,000.

As soon as today, federal Judge H. Russel Holland could clear the way for the payments, assuming he rejects a late effort from one plaintiff to re-jigger the complex plan for dividing the money.

The payout would mark the beginning of the end of an epic court case that has caused unprecedented angst among Alaskans.

But the payments are not seen as a victory among fishermen, who are still mad about the oil spill as well as the long struggle to win punitive damages from Exxon Mobil Corp.

"It's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick," said William Yankee, a Prince William Sound salmon fisherman who's on the list for nearly $58,000.

Yankee said fishermen would have preferred to avoid the trauma of the oil spill rather than collect punitive damages, which he said won't come close to making them whole.

Lawyers handling the distribution of money have filed long lists of fishermen and other plaintiffs, with a dollar figure next to each name. Quite a few entries begin with the words "Estate of..." signifying a person who died waiting for the massive class action to conclude.

The lawyers plan to distribute about $150 million by year's end.

These initial recipients are mostly salmon fishermen -- drift gillnetters, setnetters and seiners -- whose harvests were disrupted by drifting oil, plus some Native claimants. Most of the payments on the lists range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.

Lawyers aim to pay other classes of claimants next year. And they continue to battle Exxon in court for $488 million in interest on the $507.5 million in punitive damages the Supreme Court specified on June 25.

Drew Sparlin Sr., a Cook Inlet salmon drift gillnetter, is listed for just shy of $80,000. His son, also a fisherman, is down for about $50,000.

Sparlin, 70, still remembers the slicks, tarballs and oily seaweed the tides pushed into Cook Inlet, forcing closure of commercial fisheries in 1989, a year after gillnetters reaped one of their richest sockeye harvests ever and were hoping for a repeat.

Like many fishermen, Sparlin received some compensatory damages from Exxon, but he said it wasn't nearly enough to make up for a lost season. Sparlin said he earned more than $200,000 in the 1988 fishery and might have done it again were it not for the spill.

The long wait for punitive damages, and the court's slashing of the award, makes the coming checks less than satisfying, he said.

"I'm ready to say it's over, it's done. Get us paid off, and let's go get the interest," said Sparlin, adding he has no idea how he'll spend his check.

"When it goes to the bank and it cashes, then I'll make a decision," he said.

Riki Ott, a Cordova activist, is listed to receive nearly $29,000 from her past as a salmon gillnetter. These days, she's busy promoting "Not One Drop," the latest of her two books on the oil spill.

She said many people in Cordova, the main fishing port in Prince William Sound, are still struggling with the spill's fallout and won't be able to let it go until the litigation is over, the Sound's herring return and people have "an assurance that something like this won't ever happen again."

"Closure is more than money," Ott said.

Exxon Valdez claimants won't get to keep all the money they're listed to receive. Fees will be deducted to pay the lawyers who fought Exxon on behalf of the nearly 33,000 fishermen, cannery workers, land owners, Alaska Natives and others who claimed harm from the spill.

Claimants also will have to pay income taxes on whatever punitive damages they receive.

As part of a huge economic bailout plan passed recently, Congress included tax breaks for Exxon Valdez claimants that allow them to stretch out the tax hit over three years and put some of the money into retirement tax shelters.


Find Wesley Loy's commercial fishing blog online at adn.com/highliner or call 257-4590.

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