Whatever It Takes
By this time, a thousand or so claimants in the case had died. The mayor of Cordova had committed suicide--his ashes were scattered over Bligh Reef. The debt load in Cordova was, according to some people in town, about to exceed the award. In December of 2002, Judge Holland reduced the award by nearly a billion dollars. Exxon appealed.
After fifteen years of bad press, it's not surprising that Exxon's chief spokesman, Tom Cirigliano, doesn't want to talk about Cordova anymore. Since 1989, Exxon has spent more than $2 billion attempting to clean up the sound. The company also paid about $300 million to more than 32,000 fishers on the sound for losses suffered in 1989, when the entire fishing season had to be canceled. Divided equally (and the payments were not equal), that is roughly $9,500 a person. Fishers in Cordova could often bring home $100,000 a season.
"I don't want to waste any more time talking about it with you," Cirigliano said when I asked him to react to claims of the company's foot-dragging. "When they say we're dragging our feet, they've appealed a number of issues with regard to this and dragged their feet when it was to their advantage considerably. And as far as Brian O'Neill, we don't want to give an opinion on him. He's talking out of both sides of his mouth."
Much of Exxon's PR energies are directed toward refuting claims made by government scientists like Jeff Short. Short, a federal chemist from Auke Bay Labs in Juneau, has been studying the environmental effects of the spill for years, and in January of 2002 he reported that there was still Exxon oil in the sound. Short's research found more than 200 times more oil than Exxon had claimed; on the beaches hardest hit by the spill, he reported that the chances of finding oil on those same beaches twelve years later was better than 1 in 2.
The National Marine Fisheries Service Lab in Juneau found that weathered oil was affecting young salmon and herring; among the results of one investigation were eggs that died before hatching, grossly deformed spines and jaws in those that managed to hatch and a considerable decrease in returns of salmon from the sea. However, Short was careful to be fair. He has always maintained that Exxon's claims that natural variability is the reason for the fluctuating salmon and herring catch levels could turn out to be true.
Exxon struck back with David Page. A professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Bowdoin College in Maine, Page called Short's study bad science even before reviewing all of Short's research. "Prince William Sound today is as healthy as it would have been if the spill hadn't happened," he wrote in the Anchorage Daily News. If this claim sounds unusual, it helps to know that Page is on ExxonMobil's payroll; his research is underwritten by the company. (Although Tom Cirigliano encouraged me to contact Page regarding the state of the sound, Page did not respond to my requests for an interview.)
As a result of Page's charges, the sponsor of Short's research, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, commissioned a review of Short's methods by a National Marine Fisheries Service panel that was independent of Auke Bay Labs. The panel found that if there was any bias in Short's sampling, it was that he left out sites that were more likely to show oil. Short's estimate of the amount of oil remaining in the sound was likely conservative.