Shortly after the catastrophic 1989 Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Exxon sent Don Cornett, the company’s top official in Alaska at the time, to the fishing port of Cordova to reassure the fishers that the company would make things right. “You have my word,” Cornett told them then. “I said it, Don Cornett. We will do whatever it takes to keep you whole. We do business straight.”
No one in Cordova’s Masonic Lodge tonight, where attorney Brian O’Neill has called a town meeting, has forgotten that promise, and no one has failed to notice that things haven’t exactly worked out that way. O’Neill, a lawyer with the Minneapolis firm Faegre & Benson and the head of the legal team on this case, has, for ten years, returned to Cordova regularly to update his clients on the progress of the civil case against Exxon.
At this meeting, a man walks in late. He pours himself a cup of coffee and stands back near the kitchen, listening to his neighbors talk about how they now consider their wives’ health insurance plans dowries and how the new definition of a high-liner is a fisherman whose wife has a good job. He listens to as much as he seems able, then turns to O’Neill and says, “Where in the hell is my money? That’s what I want to focus on. If any of us knew we’d be having this meeting fourteen years later, we’d have liquidated and moved out. Maybe we should have.”
The man’s name is Phil Lian, and in 1988 he was one of the most successful fishers and businessmen in Cordova, fishing the sound and selling supplies to Cordova’s fleet. His business was growing at 80 percent a year, and grossing $2 million a year. But after the spill, no one needed supplies because no one was going fishing. Today, his empty fishing-supply superstore, across the road from the Cordova Fisherman’s Memorial, is a symbol of loss and matters left unresolved.
“We’re going to get the award,” O’Neill says. “In regards to your anger–”
“I don’t like to call it anger,” Lian says sharply. “I like to call it frustration.”
“Well hell, I’m angry!” O’Neill shouts.
The story of Cordova is not just a sad tale of a few bad fishing seasons. It is the story of how corporations can use the legal system and the seeming apathy of the federal government to avoid responsibility for their actions. It’s been ten years since a federal jury awarded the fishers and Natives on the sound $5.2 billion in punitive damages from Exxon, but not a single check from that award has been cut. Instead, Exxon has been fighting the verdict, employing hundreds of lawyers, filing countless appeals and effectively buying science that supports its claims. And even when ordinary people think they’ve finally won–that the final appeal has been denied–they haven’t. Perhaps they never will. Says O’Neill, “They see me as part of a system that’s failed them.”
On March 23, 1989, Captain Joseph Hazelwood stepped onto the oil tanker Exxon Valdez having consumed, according to him, three vodkas on the rocks at various bars in the port city of Valdez. Affidavits from bartenders in the port, however, claimed the captain drank the equivalent of five doubles, or, in the words of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, enough to make most people unconscious. The 11-million-gallon spill that occurred while he was in command eventually spread down 1,200 miles of coastline. The environmental damage was catastrophic. Cleanup crews watched in horror as otters scratched out their own eyes to rid them of oil. Justice Department teams recovered the carcasses of more than 36,000 migratory birds and a thousand sea otters, and believe they represent only a fraction of the actual numbers.