Whatever It Takes | The Nation


Whatever It Takes

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On a beach on Eleanor Island in Northwest Bay, Short turns over a few barnacle-covered rocks with the edge of a garden spade. Once he reaches sand, he plunges the spade in and removes a handful. He removes one more shovelful, and viscous oil slowly begins to fill the new pit. The fishy smell of the bay is instantly replaced by the toxic smell of petroleum. Short, unsurprised but not complacent, shakes his head. "It's really an insidious poison. The fact that we can find this much oil fourteen years later--and oil in this toxic condition--means the oil did a lot more damage than we think."

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Ashley Shelby
Ashley Shelby's Red River Rising: Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City will be published by Borealis...

In fact, the journal Science published a study in late December 2003 that found residual oil harmed pink salmon eggs for at least four years following the spill, and that significant amounts of crude remains on the sea bed, where it poisons mussels and clams--and by extension the animals that feed on these creatures, like otters and ducks. And, like Short, the study's researchers easily found pockets of oil on the beaches.

The last visit Brian O'Neill makes on this trip to Cordova is to Virgil Carroll. Like most of the commercial fishers in Cordova who bought their permits before the spill, Carroll spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his. Now he'll be lucky if he gets $60,000 for it. O'Neill tells Carroll that although he believes the Exxon payments are forthcoming, many claimants have died while waiting for them.

"Three of 'em in my family," Carroll says. His sons grew up fishing with their father, and were fishers themselves before the spill. Now the youngest has put his boat up for sale and moved to Anchorage, while the oldest, "never anything but a fisherman," went back to school to become a teacher in Valdez, so he can fish during the summer and still be able to buy groceries.

"What if you get money from the settlement?" O'Neill asks Carroll.

"Young guys can start fishing; for me, I could help my boys," says Carroll. "But it won't bring the fish back."

At the end of January, Judge Holland increased the punitive damage award against Exxon from $4.2 billion to $4.5 billion, plus the $2 billion of interest that has accrued on the award since 1994. O'Neill expects Exxon will appeal.

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