Whatever It Takes
For a few months, the disaster was imprinted on the national consciousness. But as time passed, it was reduced to a few stubborn media images: an oiled otter, a tar-covered seagull, men in haz-mat suits spraying boulders with boiling water. An out-of-work commercial fisherman was never among the emblems. But the fishermen were long-term victims too. Cordova, once an exuberant fishing port of 2,600 where high-liners--a term reserved for the most successful commercial fishers--might bring in a couple of hundred thousand dollars or more a year, is depressed and Dickensian. Today, there isn't a single fisher in town who would be considered a high-liner by pre-spill standards; instead, former high-liners mend nets in cannery warehouses, and bartenders fill and refill beer glasses. If the herring fishery had been closed one or maybe even two seasons, fishers say, they might have been able to bounce back; but there hasn't been a herring season for more than ten years.
On the sound, a commercial fishing permit is like a home--it is a fisher's greatest investment, something that stays in the family, an asset that accrues value. In 1988 there were fishers in Cordova whose permits were worth nearly a million dollars. Today, their permits--fishers often call them their "nest eggs"--have depreciated in value by a staggering 90 percent.
One day during Brian O'Neill's visit to Cordova, Jack Babic takes the lawyer on a ride around the sound in the purse seiner he once used during herring season. Jack and his wife, Heidi, are two of O'Neill's 32,000 clients. Babic made out well after the spill; Exxon hired local fishers to help with the cleanup, and the company paid well. The Babics took the money they made and bought a boat they hoped to pass on to their children. Then the herring seasons were canceled and the salmon prices dried up, and suddenly the Babics had no viable fishery and had to start thinking about how to manage their finances until the Exxon payments came through. Those payments always seemed just around the corner, and people planned their lives around them.
"I was born in this," Jack says. "I never wanted to do anything else. I think of the last fourteen years as a lost opportunity. You can't quantify it in terms of dollars." O'Neill asks Jack if he's angry. Jack keeps his eyes on the horizon, one hand draped over the steering wheel.
"I'm still angry," he finally says, "but how long can you be angry? I see people in this community living their lives in anger, and I don't want to live my life that way." He adds, "It's not a guaranteed thing that we'll be compensated. You just try to pick up the pieces and move on. Isn't that what we have a responsibility to do?"
"Eighteen to twenty-four months, and the final and whole settlement will be distributed," O'Neill says. It's clear Jack is doubtful. Does he believe O'Neill?
"I believe he believes it. I believe that damn company will find a way to put the skids on it. I can't say I totally believe him," Jack says. Heidi smiles at O'Neill and adds, "But I'm glad you believe it."
Later in the day, O'Neill pulls up to an old warehouse on Cordova's Cannery Row. Upstairs, two redheaded brothers, Robbie and Mike Maxwell, are mending nets. As local kids, fishing was the only thing they'd ever wanted to do; when they got older, they raised families on the good money they made during the season. Nowadays they still fish, but they don't make a living out of it, so they repair nets during the off-season.
"Let me ask you a question," Mike says to O'Neill. "'Punitive' means to punish, right?"
"So how does $5 billion hurt Exxon?"
"Five billion is more punitive than nothing," O'Neill says.
But is it? The Anchorage Daily News reported that while awaiting a final judicial decision, Exxon has earned enough in interest alone to pay the initial $5 billion award. "Each year Exxon delays payment of its obligation," the National Association of Attorneys General wrote in a 1999 letter to Exxon CEO Lee Raymond, "it earns an estimated $400 million from the difference between the statutory interest rate on judgments of 6 percent and the company's internal rate of return of about 14 percent."