Exxon Valdez - Legacy of a Spill

Thursday
May 13, 1999

Legacy of a Spill: Stories | Illustrations | Photos


Years later spill's toll still rising
$5 billion verdict is elusive dream

By NATALIE PHILLIPS
Daily News reporter



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For many fishermen hit by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the payout of a $5 billion jury verdict against the oil company won't come soon enough.

It will be too late for Clarence and Nancy Lande, fishermen from Soldotna who filed for bankruptcy in 1994. It won't come soon enough for Tim and Mary Tirrell, slowly digging their way out of debt but refusing to surrender to bankruptcy.

"I think if we would have, divorce would have been next," said Mary Tirrell.

"We talked about bankruptcy," her husband added. "We said this is just one more thing where they have won. They have worn us down, and we lose again."

It's been 10 years since the spill, and the toll can be seen on more than the wildlife and natural resources. Communities have unraveled. Friendships are strained. Some families and individuals who depended on fishing struggle to get by.

More than 440 plaintiffs have died waiting for a final settlement. About 50 have filed bankruptcy. And 4,200 liens have been filed by creditors, including the Internal Revenue Service and the state.

Five years ago in a class-action lawsuit brought by fishermen, Natives and others, a federal jury returned a $5 billion verdict against Exxon. But the case remains tied up in court. None of the 35,000 plaintiffs have been paid, and many are due $1 million or more.

"We recognize that it was a tragic accident that we deeply regret," said Exxon spokesman Ed Burwell. "We did voluntarily compensate about 11,000 who were directly damaged by the spill in 1989."

Exxon pointed out that it paid about $300 million to fishermen for losses they suffered in 1989 when they were not able to fish, that it spent $2 billion cleaning up after the spill and that it paid $1 billion to settle state and federal claims. The company has also made a number of changes in its operating procedures to prevent an accident from happening again, Burwell said.

"For these reasons we do not believe punitive damages are warranted in this case," he said. The company has appealed the jury verdict and vowed to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

While that happens, the waiting has created tension, anxiety and depression. Jealousies still linger over who made how much cleaning up Exxon oil. Resentments fester over how the $5 billion will be split when it does come. In Cordova, treatment for alcohol abuse jumped from an average of 44 cases a month before the spill to 61 a month in the years after.

Cordova is still angry.

None of this surprises Steven Picou, a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama in Mobile who has made a career of studying and comparing the fallout from natural vs. technological disasters.

Disasters follow distinct patterns, he has found. Natural disasters arouse empathy. They pull communities together.

Man-made disasters rip communities apart.

LAWYERS FIRST ON SCENE

When a man-made disaster strikes, a second inevitably follows, according to Picou and other researchers - litigation.

The Tirrells were living on a friend's 40-foot charter boat in Cordova harbor on March 24, 1989. They had been through some hard times but were determined to make Cordova their home. Mary was six months pregnant with their first child.

It was spring, which is when the close-knit harbor town of Cordova emerges from its winter cocoon to prepare for fishing season.

The herring come first. Fishermen set up floating racks of kelp for the herring to use for spawning. Fishermen harvest the kelp with its eggs, and the herring move on.

Tim and his brother were among the pioneers in Prince William Sound who developed this technique of roe harvesting, called pounding. It had become fairly reliable spring work and netted them about $50,000 each for six weeks labor. "We made a good living doing that," Tim said.

With a dependable income, the Tirrells toiled on their life dream. They spent five years building one of the first oyster farms in the Sound.

The summer of 1989 was supposed to be the first payoff when they took their oysters to market. Mary had quit her job as a speech pathologist to be a full-time mom and fisherman's wife. "Things were looking up," Mary recalled.

On March 24, Tim was watching "Good Morning America" when it was interrupted by a news bulletin. The oil tanker Exxon Valdez had run aground on Bligh Reef.

Tim cussed. Mary shrugged.

"I didn't even get the picture. I didn't have a clue," she said.

A few hours later, as she headed down the dock with her trash, a stranger approached.

"This man walks up to me and hands me a card and says, 'I am a lawyer from such and such,' " she recalled. "He said, 'Here, you will need my card.' "

ANGER, DISBELIEF, DEPRESSION

Had it been an earthquake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross would have been first on the scene. According to Picou, communities would have banded together to rebuild homes, restring powerlines and make sure everyone was taken care of.

Instead, attorneys pounded the streets of Cordova in a race to sign up the most clients. Exxon set up shop and offered big money to fishermen willing to help clean up the oil. Entrepreneurs with quick fixes for everything from spilled oil to fast food lurked on the side. Fishermen, uncertain when they would fish again, were pitted against fishermen in the quest for the best deals.

Tim Tirrell said that while Cordova pulled together in its concern over what to do about the spreading oil, other issues started splintering the community early on.

"If someone told you that you were going to make $6,000 a day, then your neighbor doesn't get a contract at all, that is the best way in the world to breed contempt and anger and get people crazy," Tirrell said. "You tweak the human greed factor.

"The skipper I fished with and I respected actually grabbed a woman at the (Exxon) office and was shaking her because he didn't get one of the early contracts," he added.

There was also a feeling of being invaded.

"That kind of ripped my guts out," Tirrell said. "The Sound was my little secret. It was known a little bit, but nobody really knew it like the fishermen. It was kind of like this was paradise. But when that happened, all these people from everywhere came."

The spill caused an upheaval in the quiet, picturesque community of 2,400. The hurt, and the influx of money, rained unevenly, jumbling long-established social roles.

Predictably, Picou pointed out, the community was flush with feelings of anger and disbelief about the spill: How could this have happened? It didn't have to happen. It could and should have been prevented.

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Picou has tracked the spill's effects on Cordova, using the towns of Petersburg and Valdez for comparisons. Periodically since the spill, Picou has interviewed fishermen in the three communities to measure spill impacts. And he was hired by the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens' Advisory Council, or RCAC, to develop a mental health project to assist recovery of communities in the spill area.

Man-made disasters throw into question the way community residents "deal with each other and stretch the bonds that hold them together," according to Kai Erickson, Yale University professor and author of "A New Species of Trouble," a book on disaster trauma.

In Cordova, many fishermen's self-esteem and social standing were tied to the annual commercial fishing season, Picou found. Commercial fishing was also the main venue for sharing cultural values and traditions. Fishing was off that summer, and its future uncertain.

In 1995, between 50 and 65 percent of the fishermen told surveyors they had medical and emotional problems, but only 10 percent reported seeking help. More than 40 percent of the men had symptoms of severe depression six years after the spill, Picou found.

"Men are especially vulnerable to depression after a man-made disaster. If you're the caretaker for the family and something prevents you from fulfilling that role, then you will get angry and depressed," according to Kati Arata, a clinical psychologist from the University of South Alabama who contributed to the RCAC mental health project.

In the six years before the spill, the mental health facilities in Prince William Sound communities treated 743 patients. In the six years after the spill, that number had increased to 840, according to Picou.

Sound Alternatives, the mental health service for Prince William Sound, suffered its own trauma. Over an eight-year period, it went through about six directors and a number of staff members, Picou said. "There was an incredibly high turnover and burnout, there was such a demand."

Children feel the stress, Picou pointed out. They revert to clinging, bed-wetting and thumb sucking and suffer sleepless nights.

"The stress people feel isn't just because of the first accident but because of the potential for a second one," according to Mike Edelstein, a psychology professor at Ramapo College in New York and author of "Contaminated Communities."

With a natural disaster, the damage can be assessed, cataloged and repaired. With technological disasters, the damage is often unknown.

"These accidents destroy things that can't be repaired, such as the air, water and soil," according to Steve Kroll-Smith, a University of New Orleans sociologist. Adding to the stress are experts who disagree on how extensive the damage is.

A disaster expert who arrived in Cordova shortly after the spill warned town residents that with a natural disaster the worst is done the moment the tornado has passed. With environmental disasters, it continues to get worse and compounds over the years. It is a slow motion disaster.

In addition, with man-made disasters, it often becomes impossible to escape the company at fault. In Prince William Sound, Exxon created the mess, and it was also in charge of setting things straight.

"It's like putting Hurricane Opal in charge of cleaning up Florida," said Bill Freudenburg, a professor of rural sociology and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin. "There's something funny about that."

$50,000 GUMBO

Initially, Tim Tirrell earned $1,000 a day skippering a friend's boat that rescued oiled sea otters. But after 30 days, "I got disgusted with the guy who owned the boat," Tim said. The friend shuffled around employees and cut Tirrell to $400 a day for the same job.

"It was still a lot of money. But I quit," Tirrell said.

For many of the fishermen, like Tirrell, it wasn't an easy decision to go to work for Exxon. Some saw it as "blood money" and wanted nothing to do with it. Others argued that someone had to do the cleanup work and with that summer's fishing up in the air, it was best to earn money while they could.

"It started out, 'I'm going out there to do a good thing, to rescue animals, so it is OK to take their dirty money,' " Tirrell said. "It always felt like dirty money to take it from them. I would have much rather taken the risk of pounding."

The oil company offered roughly $5,000 a day to lease the fishermen's boats, more if the boat was equipped with high-tech gear.

Everything was out of proportion: the amount of oil spilled; the amount of money fishermen earned cleaning it up; the amount of money spent rescuing sea otters and birds.

The absurdities bred cynicism and distrust.

For Mary Tirrell, the cynicism set in after listening to Exxon make promises that weren't kept.

"I would go to meetings. The big Exxon honcho would say, 'We'll take care of you.' I believed him. I really believed him at that point. I thought, 'It is going to be OK. People get this.' "

For Tim Tirrell, it came when he was working on a skiff rescuing oiled sea otters on the east side of Knight Island. A helicopter landed nearby with a box that needed to be delivered to Rocky Bay.

Tirrell volunteered to take it over in his skiff. "So I get this box and run it over there," he said. "It had come in from Louisiana on a Lear jet. It was helicoptered out, and I was going to take it to Rocky Bay," he said. "So I am heading over there. I open the box. It's the making for gumbo. ... I thought, this has got to be about $50,000 gumbo."

A few weeks later, Tirrell watched as a bald eagle that had been captured and cleaned of oil was set free.

"It went up and sat in a tree," he said with a chuckle. "Then they let these ducks go. The eagle swooped down and just nailed the $50,000 duck."

Many fishermen pocketed big money working for Exxon. Some were also paid extra money to make up for what they would have earned fishing. Their attorneys assured them the class action lawsuit was solid.

But for most residents, it was still less than what they would have earned in a normal prespill fishing season, according to Linden O'Toole of Cordova, who bought a seine permit just before the spill.

By the fall of 1989, people were spending money like mad, Tim and Mary Tirrell recalled. Many fishermen plowed their earnings into bigger boats and better fishing equipment. "Fishing is an equipment battle," Tim Tirrell said. People get caught up in the fear of not being competitive.

"A lot of people thought the bigger the boat, the bigger the money. They got into over capitalization," he said.

Others bought new cars, new homes and took lavish trips.

"It kept getting more and more bizarre," Tirrell said, who was in the thick of it. Activists and angry people sometimes turned against one another. Increased drinking and drug use became part of the mix.

The Tirrells, who were kicked out of their rented charter boat when the owner got a cleanup contract, depended on friends' floors that summer. They now had an infant and needed a home. They used their windfall to buy a new truck and a 32-foot camper. They figured they could move it near the oyster farm. But within a month, the truck and camper depressed them. They sold it for a loss.

"We just wanted to get rid of it because it reminded us of the whole thing," Mary said.

Tim said he was "getting out of control" that winter. He said he decided to get sober and has been since.

"I think people were trying really hard that first year to get rid of the money," Mary said. "It's like when somebody wins a lottery ticket that messes with their lives. I think we made some really weird decisions in hindsight. You think why did we do that? We wanted to get rid of the money. It sounds weird."

By the spring of 1990, Tim and others went fishing. It was one of the best years they ever had.

For a couple years it stayed that way, then the herring disappeared. The salmon catch dropped dramatically, as did the price. Fishermen blame continuing effects of the oil spill for the poor catch, while Exxon says the causes are elsewhere in the natural environment. Government scientists are somewhere in between: they say the oil spill is one of several likely contributors. Meanwhile, prices fell because of increased farm fish on the market from Chile and Norway. Sound fishermen still debate which had a more devastating effect on their fishery: the farms or the spill.

LIVES CHANGED FOREVER

Not everyone got caught in the spending trap.

Some invested their windfalls wisely and have weathered the past 10 years well.

Mike McCormick, a branch administrator for the National Bank of Alaska in Soldotna, said the spill money influx has been a boon.

"Kind of embarrassing to say it was a tremendous economic boost to Alaska because several million dollars were dropped at one time," McCormick said.

Aside from the money Exxon spent on cleanup, the oil company paid the state and federal governments $1 billion to settle their claims. Much of the government's settlement money was spent to buy land in the Sound, on the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island from Native corporations. And that, in turn, has put money in the hands of local Natives who owned the land.

On the downside, McCormick said, some of the fishermen expecting a piece of the $5 billion verdict have "spent and respent" their shares.

The Landes got caught in that trap. Clarence had been fishing in Cook Inlet since 1966. They made good money in 1989, using their fishing boat to mop up oil near Seward. They paid off some debts, bought a bigger fishing boat, added to their house, made a down payment on some land and took a trip to Disneyland.

As Cook Inlet fishermen, they expected even more in the Exxon lawsuit.

But the money didn't come soon enough and the price of fish hit the floor. In 1992, their finances started to fall apart. They got behind on payments. The bank took back the new 54-foot boat. Two years later, they filed for bankruptcy, thinking at least they could escape the pressure. But that didn't work either.

"Everybody says you file bankruptcy and you walk away," said Nancy Lande. "But it will not go away since we have an Exxon claim."

Based on a complex, court-approved formula for dividing the $5 billion judgment, the Landes figure their share is about $500,000. But they owe creditors $300,000. Nancy Lande said the interest they owe continues to accumulate, so the longer the payout is stalled, the less likely there will be anything left for them.

"We had no idea how this was going to change our lives forever," she said. "It's our fault because we put too much store in the fact that the settlement was going to pay.

"Nothing will ever be the same," she added. "I knew we were glued and tattooed by Exxon. If they can get out of paying the little guys, they will. If we ever see a dime, I will be absolutely amazed. I'd have better luck going out and buying a Powerball (lottery) payoff. Exxon is the Publishers Clearing House for us."

Fifty-one-year-old Charles "Chip" Lamb fished the Sound successfully for 35 years. It was all he knew.

While he waited for his share, he lost his boat and his marriage. Three years ago, he suffered a stroke. Last year, he filed bankruptcy. He depends on Social Security payments now to get by.

He figures his share of the $5 billion is around $2 million, but most of that will go to his ex-wife, the IRS, lawyers and the fish processing company that kept him afloat in the years after the spill.

"I get real angry when I think about it," Lamb said. "If I can keep it out of my head and just deal with my horses and stay away from anything to do with Exxon, I do all right."

The O'Tooles of Cordova fared better than the Landes and Lamb, but they are still bitter.

Months before the spill, Linden O'Toole and her husband borrowed money from the state for a $300,000 boat and a seine permit to fish the Sound.

"At the time the hatcheries were coming on line," she said. "The world view was that the sky was the limit. These are good investments."

But in the years after the spill, when fishing went sour and the price of fish plummeted, so did the value of their boat and permit.

"We had this financial crisis for years, it strained our marriage," she said. "We thought we were going to have to leave Cordova. We were on the verge of bankruptcy."

But they dug out. O'Toole got a real estate license. They sold the permit in 1994 for $48,500, but they still owed the state $100,000. They were able to negotiate that down and eventually pay it off.

"We are one of the few success stories," she said. "There aren't many unfilled niches here. I found one."

"We all had thriving, booming businesses in 1989," she said of Cordova. "We are all now on our knees." Few in the community have retirement accounts or investments.

With the windfall spent and the fisheries not rebounding, 60 percent of the fishermen in Cordova had to take a second job to compensate for economic losses, according to the surveys conducted by Picou. One in three reported that spouses had to take a job.

Some fishermen folded up and left, selling their permits way below what they had paid for them at the peak of their value in 1988. Though most stuck around that first winter, there was an exodus the next two winters, Tim Tirrell said.

"Nobody made more money working on the spill that summer than they lost over the next 10 years in boat and permit devaluations and lost income," O'Toole said. "We did not all make a lot of money, but we did all lose a lot of money."

Only about 90 of the 270 permit holders in the Sound fished last year. Once a "highliner" referred to a fishermen who caught the most fish in a season. The joke in Cordova now is that a "highliner" is a fishermen with a wife who has a good job.

"There are a lot of fishermen who are economically dependent on their wives now," O'Toole said. "Or they fish other areas like Bristol Bay or Southeast Alaska. As far as I know, nobody is making a living exclusively fishing the Sound."

Cordova went from being the ninth leading port in the nation for commercial fish harvest in 1987 to the 51st in 1993, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures.

LEAVING CORDOVA

As the 10-year anniversary of the spill approached, Mary Tirrell was worried. She arranged long in advance to take off Wednesday, March 24, from work knowing it would be difficult. Her son, born just months after the spill, is now a third-grader and stands as tall as her shoulder.

Ask her what the last 10 years have been like and she fights back tears. She starts to talk and doesn't stop for two hours. After the conversation, she confided that she and her husband are now seeing a psychiatrist.

In 1994, the Tirrells decided they had to leave Cordova.

"Out of necessity we moved," Mary said. "And that was a really painful move. We cried all the way. We didn't want to go."

Tim said the move was partly driven by finances, partly by emotions.

"The town was getting even more nuts drinking-wise," Mary said. "Or maybe we just noticed it more because of our changes. No. I was working in the social services. I saw the statistics. There wasn't a home that I visited that the spill didn't come up in some way."

They rent a house on the outskirts of Palmer. They rarely talk about being spill refugees. Most of their neighbors work on the North Slope, and all they know of the spill is that it created a bunch of "spillionaires."

"Sometimes we wanted to vent, but here we can't," Tim said. "It took us about two weeks to realize that people didn't have any sympathy when you started your little oil spill story. I learned not to talk about it ever."

When they arrived in Palmer, they still owed for protective boom they used to keep the oil away from their oyster farm. And they still owed the IRS $14,000 in back taxes.

The oyster farm went bust. In 1996, they sold their herring permit for $35,000 to settle up with the IRS. They were the original holders of the permit and had hoped to pass it on to their children.

They still are trapped by other debts.

Many things bring back the disaster. There are trigger words "that make me tighten in the gut," Mary said. She is saddened when she sees the elaborate and professionally designed publications of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which oversees the spending of the government settlement with Exxon. It reminds her that people are making a living off the spill. "It's become an industry unto itself," she said.

It angers both to think that Exxon has been earning 18 percent interest on the $5 billion verdict while the case remains tied up in court. Exxon, however, will only have to pay the standard 6 percent interest on its debt as set by the federal government.

Like many fishermen, the Tirrells think the state should have refused to settle its own case with Exxon until the fishermen's claims were resolved.

The Tirrells believe their share of the $5 billion could be as much as $500,000, but they try not to think about it.

"It is a lot of money, but I was making $48,000 to $50,000 a year herring pounding," Tim said. "So if the spill hadn't happened, I could have made that money honestly over the past 10 years without having to go through all this crap."

Mary said it is hard to imagine they will ever see it.

"The more things I get from EVOS (Trustee Council) and the state, I get this real paranoid feeling that even if the money is given out, somehow we won't see any of it," Mary said.

Tim likened it to the letter from Ed McMahon that says: "You may have already won" the sweepstakes.

"That's where we are right now," he said. "We may have already won. On the other hand, it could go to the 9th Circuit and they could say, 'Sorry, you guys lost. Too bad. It's over.' "

They dream of someday getting out of debt and buying a house. "But we really don't want to buy a house here," Mary said. "We really want to go back to Cordova."

Reporter Natalie Phillips can be reached at nphillips@adn.com.


Legacy of a Spill: Stories | Illustrations | Photos

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