Exxon and attorneys representing 3,500 Alaska Natives reached an out-of- court settlement Monday in which the oil company will pay Natives $20 million for their loss of subsistence hunting and gathering following the 1989 spill. "We got what we were asking for, so we were really pleased with the amount," said Gary Kompkoff, village chief of Tatitlek. "I was scheduled to testify, but we learned on Thursday there was a high potential for a settlement."
It could be months before the federal court approves the agreement and checks are mailed. And checks will vary depending on how hard an area was hit by oil, but after attorney fees and expenses are deducted, individual checks could average $4,000 and will be disbursed in 18 villages on Kodiak Island, in Prince William Sound and the Lower Cook Inlet.
"This will make it a lot easier to purchase food," Kompkoff said. Because of damage caused by the spill, villagers have had to rely more on store-bought food, he said.
Tatitlek is a village of about 100 people on the northeast shore of Prince William Sound. The per capita income in Tatitlek is about $8,600, compared with $17,600 for the rest of Alaska.
The agreement does not bump the 3,500 Natives out of the long line of plaintiffs including fishermen, coastal towns and property owners seeking $15 billion in punitive damages from the oil giant. And it does not affect the trial going on in state court where a dozen coastal communities and Native corporations are seeking $100 million in property damage because of the spill.
In a joint press release, attorneys representing the Natives and Exxon said the agreement represents only a partial settlement of the Natives' claims. The settlement just covers the value of fish, seals, kelp and other wild foods that Natives were unable to harvest because of the spill. The agreement leaves open the door for Natives to seek more money for damages to their lifestyle and culture.
In March, U.S. District Court Judge Russel Holland ruled that those claims are not allowed under federal maritime law, but the Natives' attorneys said they plan to appeal that decision once the complicated, three-phase trial is over.
As a part of the settlement, attorneys representing both sides agreed not to discuss the settlement until all three phases of the trial are completed.
"We are in full agreement we can't comment until the jury is done with its work because we don't want to risk a mistrial," said Lloyd Miller, an attorney representing the Natives.
The dollar figure Natives originally were seeking has fluctuated since the trial began in early May, but a week ago attorneys representing Natives said they wanted somewhere between $18 million and $27 million.
The $20 million agreement came as a federal jury entered its 10th day of deliberating the bigger question of how much 10,000 fishermen should be paid for their losses. The fishermen are seeking $895 million. Once the jury returns, it will immediately begin hearing testimony to determine what punitive damages Exxon should pay.
In Phase One of the trial, which began in May, the same jury decided that the 1989 grounding of the Exxon Valdez, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound, can be blamed on recklessness by Exxon and Joe Hazelwood former captain of the Exxon Valdez. That decision cleared the way for Phase Three of the trial.
James Fall of the state Department of Fish and Game's Division of Subsistence said the settlement money will probably be spent on "new boats, new skiffs, new guns, gasoline, equipment and building new smokehouses."
"We know that since the spill, people in Tatitlek, Chenega Bay have had to invest more money in subsistence in order to get an adequate harvest," Fall said. "By their own reports, they have had to travel farther or make more trips for certain resources seals, sea lions and deer. Each trip has been less productive. They have had to search hard."
Lee Huskey , an economist with the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said he expects the money will be spent on "big ticket items" like appliances and subsistence gear.
"Twenty million is not a big ripple in the economy in general," Huskey said. "But for everyone who gets it, it is real important."