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Exxon Valdez timeline

  • Author: Alaska News
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 15, 2015

On Thursday, in the same Anchorage courtroom where the Exxon Valdez criminal case played out 24 years ago, the same federal judge, H. Russel Holland, heard attorneys tell him that the state and federal governments have no more reason to fight with the oil giant over the 1989 oil spill disaster. Here's a timeline of the legal saga, from start to finish.

MARCH 24, 1989: Exxon Valdez tanker, skippered by Capt. Joe Hazelwood, runs aground on Bligh Reef, spilling more than 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.
1989: Fishermen, land and business owners and others harmed by the spill begin filing civil lawsuits against Exxon. The cases are eventually consolidated for the trial.

1990: An Alaska jury finds Hazelwood not guilty of felonies, including an allegation that he was drunk as the Exxon Valdez skipper, but convicts him of negligent discharge of oil, a misdemeanor.

1991: Exxon agrees to plead guilty before federal Judge H. Russel Holland to four misdemeanor environmental crimes and pay $125 million in fines to be split between the state and federal governments. The plea also settled state and federal civil complaints for $900 million, a deal that included a conditional reopener clause as “insurance against uncertainty in the scope of injury.” The $900 million was managed by three federal and three state trustees, who split the money between restoration and scientific studies.

1994: A jury in the civil case awards the plaintiffs $287 million in actual damages and $5 billion in punitive damages. Exxon vows to appeal.

1998: The Alaska Court of Appeals upholds Hazelwood’s sentence of 1,000 hours of community service. Hazelwood eventually goes to work cleaning up trash along Anchorage roads.

2004: After several appeals, the civil case is back before Holland, who orders Exxon to pay $4.5 billion in punitive damages.

2006: The state and federal governments seek $92 million in a reopener with the discovery of relative unweathered Exxon Valdez oil along beaches in the spill zone that could continue to pose dangers to wildlife, in particular otters and harlequin ducks.

2008: By a 5-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court orders the $2.5 billion punitive damage award be lowered to $507.5 million.

2014: The state and federal trustees say new studies show that despite the lingering oil on an estimated 2 miles of shoreline, otters and harlequin ducks have “recovered” from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. That ruling lays the groundwork for closing the Exxon case without invoking the “reopener.”

OCT. 15, 2015: Judge Holland formally acknowledges that the litigation has ended and there will be no reopener, but he said the restoration efforts have not ended.

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