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The Spill and Its Spoils
David Postman
September 30, 1996
The Exxon Valdez crashed in 1989; the debate over recovery still rages
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September 30, 1996

The Spill And Its Spoils

The Exxon Valdez crashed in 1989; the debate over recovery still rages

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An insurance man traveling in Alaska stopped in at the Union Hall in Cordova recently. He stared at the three large paintings that depict oil-spill booms and an otter skull on an oil-stained shoreline, and, realizing that this was a commemoration of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, said, "You guys still aren't over that?"

Dorne Hawxhurst, executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United (CDFU), the 300-member group that shares the labor hall with three other associations, tried to explain that no, Cordova's fishermen aren't over the 1989 spill. The lawsuits aren't finished. The cleanup isn't done. Many of the fishermen are depressed and broke. The oil companies are still fighting stringent safety standards that might prevent a repeat of the Exxon Valdez accident, in which the supertanker ran aground and disgorged 11 million gallons of North Slope crude into Prince William Sound, and would force the oil companies to be better prepared in the event of a spill. Hawxhurst, who has a schoolteacher's ability to make a person wither under her glare, fixed that look upon the insurance salesman. "I wanted to kill him," she said later.

It's a bad idea to fly into this town on the shore of Prince William Sound—a town where Exxon officials were hanged in effigy after the accident and where fishermen talk fondly of the days when CDFU was a union with muscle—and suggest that it is time for folks to get on with their lives. Their lives are too closely linked to the sound and to the troubled fishing industry.

"It's a dead sea out there," says Dan Pettit as he sits in his 24-foot salmon boat in Cordova harbor. Pettit, 41, is a big man who nearly fills the cabin of the Midnight Sun. Once he starts talking about the spill, he runs through emotions as quickly as he will go through the cheap beer stocked on the foredeck.

"It's going to be a dead zone for the next 500 years. This is the honest to god's truth," Pettit says as he hoists his huge arms toward the heavens. "I go out there and cry. You can see the goddam oil stains on the rocks. I used to hate to see all the damn birds. Now you don't see them so much, and you know what? I miss them."

Indeed, there are far fewer seabirds, seals and herring—before the spill herring was the most lucrative harvest. And as the sound recovered from the spill and fishermen were again allowed to fish, their financial woes were aggravated by the collapse of the salmon market under a glut of hatchery-raised fish.

This year Dan became the first Pettit in three generations to leave Cordova to find work. "Last winter I had to go down to Georgia to work construction for nine dollars an hour," he says. "I was embarrassed. My brother Doug said, 'Dan, you've got to find a job. I can't afford to feed you.' It hurt. It's like, This is not your life anymore. Sorry, you've got to find something else to do."

Yet the Pettits and other commercial fishermen in Cordova may soon haul in a fortune. In 1994 an Anchorage jury ordered Exxon to pay more than $5 billion to fishermen and other plaintiffs who could show that they have been financially hurt by the spill. If that ruling, now under appeal, holds up, Cordova's fishermen will receive an average of about $800,000 apiece. Some fishermen in the spill area could collect nearly $2 million.

The prospective windfall has tempered Alaskans' sympathy for the affected fishermen—The Anchorage Daily News has dubbed them "spillionaires"—and is a touchy subject in Cordova. "If you're doing [a story on] the spillionaire thing, I don't think people are going to be interested in talking to you," Hawxhurst warned a reporter.

Seven years have passed since captain Joe Hazelwood and his crew impaled the Exxon Valdez on Bligh Reef. Close to $3 billion has been spent by Exxon alone to mop up the oil, scrub rocks, clean otters and birds, let loose oil-eating microbes and—when nothing else worked—ship in bulldozers and perform massive beach overhauls. If Exxon loses its appeal of the $5 billion damages claim, it also will have paid out nearly $6 billion in fines, judgments and settlements. Studies have been done, laws passed, promises made.

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