Thousands of Alaska fishermen and other plaintiffs should receive their portions of punitive damages in the Exxon Valdez oil spill lawsuit before the end of November, a federal judge said Monday.
Judge H. Russel Holland ordered the release of $151 million of the negotiated $383 million settlement stemming from a lawsuit filed in the nation's worst oil spill nearly two decades ago.
Plaintiffs attorney Andrew Ott expects that money to be distributed by sometime next week.
"It's a good day for the residents of Prince William Sound and those adversely affected by the devastating effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill," said Dan Lawn, president of the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility.
"It's a start for closure," he said.
"We're anxious to have the matter resolved, so anything that accommodates that is a good thing," said Exxon Mobil spokesman Alan Jeffers.
The remaining $232 million of the settlement negotiated with Exxon will be paid out later, Ott said.
Under that agreement, the money will be distributed to nearly 33,000 commercial fishermen and others who sued Exxon after the 1989 spill of crude in Prince William Sound.
On March 23 of that year, the tanker Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into the Sound.
A jury in 1994 awarded plaintiffs $5 billion. That was cut in half by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court in late June, by a 5-3 vote, reduced the total to $507 million. The high court didn't rule on whether Exxon should pay interest and sent that issue back to the 9th Circuit Court for a decision. Oral arguments are expected in December, Jeffers said.
Interest calculated since 1994 would add an estimated $488 million, boosting awards to individuals from roughly $15,000 to about $29,400. Exxon contends it does not have to pay interest.
"You need to make an end to this thing," Lawn said. "Exxon has done everything they can to twist the legal system into trying to get out of shouldering their financial responsibility."
Stan Stephens with the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Committee said the small checks were a "slap in the face" to the people of Prince William Sound and all coastal areas of Southcentral Alaska.
"It's good they got something but it's far too little," he said, adding he's never been able to forgive Exxon for the spill.
"The least they could have done was make some people whole," Stephens said.
Holland earlier this month rejected the claim of Sea Hawk Foods Inc., which operated a fish-processing plant in Valdez.
The company years ago agreed to the allocation plan worked out among plaintiffs in the lawsuit. But in October, the company's attorneys asked Holland to reject the negotiated agreement and replace it with a new plan, which would have provided more money to the Seattle-based company.
Holland denied that claim, but on Monday withheld some of the money to be distributed in case the company were to win on appeal.