News & Politics

Exxon's Deadly Legacy Lives on for Fishermen

Nineteen years after their disaster spill, Exxon's trying shirk responsibility.
My name is John Platt. I am a third generation Prince William Sound fisherman. My family has fished the Sound since the1930's.

Back in the early 1970's, the State of Alaska, the Federal Government, as well as a consortium of oil companies proposed putting the terminus of the Alaska pipeline in Valdez. The fisherman's union, including my father, opposed such action, which would ultimately put their livelihood at risk if an oil spill should ever occur. Their concerns were swept away with assurances that this would never happen. United States Senator Ted Stevens was quoted as saying, "Using the latest technologies, not one drop would ever touch the waters of Prince William Sound."

Unlike my forefathers, I had to purchase permits under the limited entry commercial fishery system established in the 1970's. I hold area E permits to fish salmon drift gillnet, salmon seine and herring sac roe seining.

While all the fisheries were adversely affected by the spill, the most profoundly affected continues to be herring. When the ExxonValdez oil spill took place, the herring fishers had been preparing for the spring season to commence. As a result of the spill, the fishery was closed and we were entrenched in months and months of crisis management. Over the next several years the herring fishery fluctuated and then in 1993 there was a complete and unprecedented crash. Since that time, the herring population has not recovered and the fishery has remains closed to this day. Our herring permits and our gear are not only useless, they are worthless.

Fishermen such as myself have lost the equity we built, which was also our means of creating a retirement. I still carry the original debt and loan payments to the Alaska Division of Investments compounding at two to three times the original amount. In order to avoid bankruptcy, I have entered into an agreement with the State requiring me to sell my seine boat and permits and relinquish my entire punitive settlement. In a best case scenario, where the award is upheld at $2.5 billion plus interest, I will meet the debt owed to the State but loose my remaining fishing assets. Any reduction of punitive damages will result in a shortfall which will likely make bankruptcy inevitable.

In 2007, the Prince William Sound Science Center published a scientific paper linking the ExxonValdez oil spill to the herring crash. Scientific studies indicate that exposure to relatively low concentrations of ExxonValdez oil can compromise adult herring's immune systems and make them susceptible to disease. However, at the time of the trial, not all of the damages were quantified. On September 20, 1991 the State of Alaska and the Federal Government arranged to settle out of court with Exxon for a figure close to a billion dollars for compensation for the environmental damage, restitution for injuries to the fish, wildlife and lands of the spill region. By settling with Exxon, the State and Federal Government eliminated any leverage the fishermen had.

Countless motions and almost twenty years later we have finally neared the conclusion of Exxon's efforts to evade its responsibility. However, the plaintiff's faith in the Government as well as the judicial system has been permanently eroded. In light of the United States Supreme Court perceived inclination to reduce the punitive damages, our hearts are heavy. With a further judgment reduction, total amounts in many peoples claims will not even scratch those monies owed to the State. It is frustrating to think that upon conclusion of this trial many of us will be going bankrupt, our lives ruined again in this endless nightmare.
John Platt is a third generation commercial fisherman in Price William Sound, Alaska.
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