HARD AGROUND - Wreck of the Exxon Valdez - March 24, 1989


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Daily News reporter

Anchorage Daily News
Date: 09/18/94
Day: Sunday
Edition: Final
Section: Nation
Page: A1

CORDOVA- Five billion dollars may sound like a handsome prize, but many people here who make a living fishing in Prince William Sound think it's too little, too late.

A day after an Anchorage federal court jury delivered the record judgment to punish Exxon for the 1989 oil spill, Cordova commercial fishermen seem torn, unsure whether to feel triumphant or bitter.

For everything positive that longtime residents had to say about Friday's verdict, few could bring themselves to say that justice has been done or that $5 billion will be enough for everyone hurt by the 11 million gallon spill to put their lives back together.

Bill Reid Jr., a lifelong Cordova resident and gillnet fisherman, called it a "short-lived victory."

"It's a victory as far as the jury stating that Exxon deserves to be punished," he said. "But as far as me thinking we're going to get checks from Exxon in the next decade, I don't think we'll see anything. They've kicked and screamed every step of the way, and I don't expect them to stop now."

Exxon has said it will appeal the jury's decision, which could take years.

Nonetheless, there was some celebrating. Around 100 people packed the Powder House restaurant Saturday night for the "sometimes annual Fish Prom" sponsored by Cordova District Fishermen United.

John Bocci, a board member of the fisherman's union, raised his wine glass in a tribute to "truth, justice and the American way."

"I would like to propose a toast to the 12 jurors of the Exxon Valdez trial who saw fit to do what they did," he said to a roomful of applause.

But other than the Powder House dinner and dance party, which was planned before anyone knew there would be a court verdict, Cordova didn't react like a small town that had just won a huge lottery jackpot.

Some fishermen, just returned from netting silver salmon, indulged themselves at local bars, but there was no sign of dancing in the streets. There was plenty of commentary in meeting halls and street corners about Exxon being taught a lesson, but no effigies of the Exxon tiger were hoisted up flagpoles.

And while some marveled at the prospect of a giant corporation being fined a 10-digit sum equal to a year's profits, no one pretended they were instant millionaires destined for early retirement.

"The general consensus is that we'd rather have the fisheries back instead of any money that might be paid to us," said 33-year-old Gonzalo Villalon, a seine fisherman here for nine years.

Others are outright angry, saying that a $5 billion penalty won't hurt Exxon, one of the world's largest corporations, nearly as much as the spill damaged the livelihoods of the 10,000 commercial fishermen, Native villagers and other plaintiffs.

During closing arguments, their attorneys had asked for punitive damages between $5 billion and $20 billion.

"I'm mad as heck," said Larry Christensen, a gillnetter here for more than 20 years. "I'm waiting to see what happens to Exxon's stock on Wall Street come Monday. If it doesn't go down, that's an indication that $5 billion wasn't enough of a signal."

Another fisherman, James Mykland, said he doesn't care about the money.

"I want the Sound restored!" he exclaimed. "When is the federal government going to admit the Sound (is still damaged from the spill) and when is it going to be restored?"

The condition of the Sound's fisheries was on many minds at the weekend-long board meeting of the nonprofit Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp., which manages five hatcheries.

Overall, board members said, this year's returns for pink salmon, though not for reds, were better than recent years. But prices remain volatile. And the region's herring fisheries were closed this spring for the second straight year because of weak returns. Scientists and government agencies disagree on whether the oil spill is responsible for the herring crash. But it's hard to find anyone in Cordova who doesn't see a direct cause and effect.

Jerry McCune, president of the fishermen's union, said Friday's court verdict, while encouraging as a symbolic victory, cannot undo the damage caused by the spill.

"Some people are already bankrupt, they're already gone," he said. "Some (non-fishing) businesses in town are still struggling."

All told, there are about 1,000 commercial fishing vessels in Cordova harbor, which is the industry's major hub in the Sound. Cordova also has suffered the worst in the five years following the spill.

As Bill Reid Jr. put it: "My financial position is like most people in this town. I've just been hanging on. My head is above water but not far."

Mayor Margy Johnson, whose critics have questioned her support for fishermen, spoke emotionally in an interview about the 1989 spill not only ruining the local economy, but also changing the way people think about their community. She said it has eroded their trust in government.

"All my life in my business, the herring came back when the tulips are up. The tulips made eyes happy and the herring filled my bar with laughter and cash," said Johnson, who owns The Reluctant Fisherman Inn. "The herring aren't there now, but the laughter was the first victim. And if laughter was the first victim, trust was the second."

Johnson said Cordova will never fully recover from the spill, but that the townspeople have made a courageous comeback. Friday's court verdict helps the healing, she said, by sending a message to corporate owners and managers around the world.

"It says very clearly to me that technological devastation in the state of Alaska will not be tolerated," she said. "One resource cannot be allowed to destroy another resource."

Story Index:
Main | The Legal Battles
Overall: story 310 of 380 Previous Next
The Legal Battles story 59 of 87 Previous Next

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