Supreme Court's Exxon Valdez ruling shakes Alaska town

CORDOVA —Disappointment. Resignation. Disgust.

Residents of this tiny fishing town, so hopeful for a blockbuster payday from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, faced a gray and rainy day Wednesday with a stark sense of loss.

In the harbor, many commercial fishermen who joined the civil suit against Exxon conceded they didn’t expect much different from the U.S. Supreme Court, which cut a lower court award of $2.5 billion in punitive damages to $507.5 million.

"I was sick to my stomach this morning," said Terry Buchholz, 60, a lifelong commercial gillnetter.

Had the lower court judgment held up, Buchholz said he was in line to collect $900,000. Now, he said, he expects to receive a small fraction of that.

"I sure as hell ain’t going to be retiring now," said Dave Butler, 68, talking from the high bridge of his seine boat. "I gotta fish till I’m 80."

On First Street, the main drag through this town with no traffic lights, big protest banners crudely painted by hand started going up on the storefronts before noon. "Justice broken." "Corporations are above the law?" "Exxon made $ we paid $"

Rikki Ott, a Cordova marine biologist and long-time Exxon critic, led the banner making. "You know, I've been painting these things for 19 years," she said. "You’d think I would save them."

She said she was hoping the court would go the other way, uphold a big judgment. Now she believes Congress must step in to trump the high court and make corporations liable for stiffer punitive damage penalties.

And it should be retroactive to include the Exxon Valdez case, Ott said.

Cordova, home to roughly 2,000 year-round residents and tucked against snowy peaks on the west side of Prince William Sound, never saw a drop of oil on its shores after the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Blight Reef in 1989, spilling about 11 million gallons of oil. All the oil drifted well to the west.

But many residents here were touched to the quick by the spill’s aftermath.

Cordova is home port for hundreds of commercial fishermen who work throughout the Sound.

They've grown gray, and even died, waiting for the courts to decide Exxon Valdez.

Yet many are still full of fury for what they say are the real and lingering disruptions the spill caused. The closed fisheries. The deep-seated belief that the oil did grave, lasting damage to the herring fishery, to the pink salmon fishery, to the value of people's fishing permits, to retirement plans.

And all the years of waiting for the courts to decide — just decide already! — only added to the shock and pain of 1989, they say.

"You know, I always felt that Exxon always had the power," said fisherman Mike Lytle. "A lot of money, a lot of lawyers to back them. I always thought they'd win because of that."

He added: "I found out what the meaning of punitive damages is, and that’s puny."

"I still believe you can fight city hall. But apparently you can’t fight Exxon," said Sylvia Lange, who is among the subsistence fishing plaintiffs in the Exxon Valdez case. "I refuse to be cynical, but I'm definitely skeptical now."

Lange and her husband got out of commercial fishing a few years ago to buy a harborside hotel, The Reluctant Fisherman Inn. It was a way for the family to keep working and living in Cordova.

Residents here, she said, are shaken by the Supreme Court decision.

"Everyone’s just sad. Pissed off and sad," she said. "There is no closure. All it does is free us from the constant victimhood of our so-called justice system."

Cordova Mayor Tim Joyce, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, spent much of Wednesday morning closely reading the Supreme Court majority ruling and the dissenting opinions — 61 pages in all.

He sees something of a silver lining in the fact that the court allowed at least some punitive damages in a maritime case. That's good for the future, he said.

But the level of punitive damages the court settled on, $507.5 million, won't much sting a corporate giant like Exxon.

"It’s just not that severe," Joyce said.

He believes the ruling will have profound effects on some residents in Cordova, especially those who didn’t just want the money but needed it.

"There will be people that this is going to devastate," he said.

Adding to Cordova's misery is the poor salmon return to the nearby Copper River, famed for its high-quality king and sockeye salmon. State biologists had forecast smaller returns this season after last year's banner catch, but so far the runs have been much weaker than expected.

And high fuel prices are eating guys alive.

Normally, gillnetters would be out on the vast Copper River flats today, and every Thursday, netting fish in perilous waters that have taken many a fisherman’s life. But the Department of Fish and Game has canceled today’s opener.

Still, the Cordova boat harbor was half empty Wednesday as many fishermen chased stronger runs of sockeye and chum salmon on the western side of Prince William Sound.

Those remaining in the harbor sipped coffee and commiserates about the Supreme Court ruling everybody so wanted for months and yet dreaded.

"We’re just shafted and get used to it," said Jack Hopkins, working with his young crew aboard his seine boat, the Raven's Child. "We’re hard-working people here and we're gonna keep on working. We’ve got a few more fish to catch."

Like many commercial fishermen, Dave Butler put his boat to work in the massive, Exxon-financed cleanup operation that unfolded after the tanker ran aground.

Part of his job was to drive around picking up birds and otters matted in oil. Many of them were dead when pulled aboard, and Butler and his crew were smeared with crude oil from the belly of the breached tanker.

Butler and many other fishermen speculated Wednesday on how long it might be until they get their piece of the $507.5 million. And how much the interest on the money might be. And they debated whether still more court proceedings could be in the offing.

"We probably won't see a check till Christmas," Butler said.

Many fisherman said they wrote off the possibility of a big Exxon windfall long ago, and are glad now that they did.

Lange, of the Reluctant Fisherman Inn, said Cordova is a "resilient little town."

"Now we must move forward. This has taken a big enough chunk out of our lives."

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