It will be at least two years, and probably longer, before the first dime of the $5 billion Exxon Valdez punitive award reaches Alaska, but that hasn't stopped attorneys for people harmed by the spill from laying out their plan on how to distribute the funds.
At a news conference Tuesday, attorneys Dave Oesting and Brian O'Neill said they have given the U.S. District Court a complex matrix they have developed to get the money to the fishermen, Natives, business owners and property holders injured by the 11 million-gallon spill.
The plan calls for the 32,000 plaintiffs to divide the award, although not equally.
The most successful boat owners who worked Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet during the spill and after could collect up to $1.3 million, O'Neill said. On the low end, some business owners only tangentially affected by the spill could receive checks for a few thousand dollars.
The lawyers stand to collect more than $1 billion, a 20 percent fee that O'Neill said all of the 60 law firms involved in the case have agreed to.
Exxon spokesman Ed Burwell said the company had not seen the award distribution plan and would not comment on it.
The plan, if it is approved by U.S. District Judge Russel Holland, would compensate fishermen based on their previous harvests, the amount their boats and permits were devalued and other factors.
Thirty-nine fisheries in Prince William Sound, Kodiak, the Cook Inlet and Chignik are in line to receive money from the punitive award. The Upper Cook Inlet salmon drift fishery would claim nearly $781 million, the highest share.
No one is going to collect anything until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hears Exxon's appeal of the Anchorage federal jury's 1994 verdict. The process began in February, and O'Neill said he expects the court to take up to two years to hear the appeal and rule on it. The loser could then appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Oesting said he expects the process to take longer than two years.
Assuming the verdict stands, the $4 billion left after attorneys fees could create an economic boom in the fishing communities where much of the money would be paid. The total annual payroll for all the state's workers is $8 billion.
''It's not small change,'' said Neil Fried, an economist with the state's Labor Department. ''Even in Alaska's league, $4 billion is a huge amount of cash.''