Whatever It Takes
When Exxon and Mobil presented a merger proposal to the Federal Trade Commission in 1999, many saw an opportunity for the federal government to put pressure on Exxon to pay the punitive fine. Yet few in Washington--and no one from Alaska's Congressional delegation--even tried. One legislator who did, Senator Slade Gorton, a Republican from Washington State, said in 1999, "We have an opportunity to make an indelible impression on what would be the largest corporation on Earth--that an oil spill like this must never happen again." The FTC approved the Exxon/Mobil merger in November of 1999.
"Who's being punished here?" Mike Maxwell asks O'Neill. "We are. Looking into the future, is my son going into fishing? Absolutely not."
"The best I can do," O'Neill says, "is to get the $5 billion. I can't put the sound back together."
"I would just love to collect the Exxon oil that is on our beaches," Mike says, "and dump those gallons of oil on the front yard of its corporate headquarters. It's been in my front yard for fourteen years."
Dr. Steven Picou, a professor of sociology from the University of South Alabama, has spent the past fifteen years studying the effect the Exxon spill has had on the towns of the sound, specifically Cordova. Over the years, his focus has slowly shifted from the effects of the environmental devastation on the fishermen to the sociological and psychological damage inflicted by the legal battle.
Picou's findings in Cordova were damning: A third of fishers were clinically depressed; approximately 37 percent exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sixty percent of Cordova commercial fishers have had to take second jobs to make ends meet. Toxins, Picou was finding, had contaminated more than just the water; they had contaminated the town of Cordova.
"I think the vast majority of people in Cordova believed the reps from Exxon," Picou said. "But once the issue was transformed from how-to-get-out-of-the-media-limelight to how-to-get-in-a-position-to-protect-our-profit-margin-and-stock-value, then it changed overnight. They zipped up their purse strings, got out of town, and said, You'll find us in the courtroom."
In a keynote address presented at the Earth Charter Summit in 2002, Picou outlined what he considered Exxon's legal strategy for avoiding payment of the punitive-damage decision. "Hire the best attorneys money can buy, and aggressively attack plaintiffs in every manner possible, while also delaying court proceedings by any legal means necessary for as long as possible, no matter how frivolous the challenge. Hire your own scientists to evaluate ecological damages and pervert the process of science by hiding behind any degree of uncertainty that may and will always characterize independent scientific damage assessments." In other words, Picou believes that litigation in the cases of big business versus communities devastated by "collateral damage" provide those corporations with a kind of insurance policy against future disasters, a policy underwritten by the US court system.