Imagine being an Alaska fisherman on March 24, 1989, when the supertanker Exxon Valdez runs aground at Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, sending an estimated 11 million gallons of oil into the waters in which you make your living. And all you want to do is wake up from the nightmare you see unfolding.
But you can’t. It won’t end anytime soon. It will span almost two decades.
The years of court wrangling alone over cleanup costs and punitive damage amounts is disturbing. But wait! Finally, there’s a glimmer of hope! An Anchorage trial jury declares in 1994 that Exxon Mobil must pay the plaintiffs a total of $5 billion in punitive damages!
Yes! At last, some measure of healing can begin. Maybe your nightmare is finally over.
Not just yet.
Exxon Mobil challenges the punitive damages award. More years pass. And as they do, you watch people go broke, marriages and families dissolve. You see fishing communities torn apart.
Then the 9th Circuit Court reduces the punitive damages total to $2.5 billion in 2006. The oil giant has the money and manpower to keep the court battle going for years. Some 32,000 plaintiffs originally signed on to the case. About 4,000 of them have passed away by the time the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the punitive damages total in 2008.
And when it does, it whittles that total down to $507 million. Exxon ends up also paying another $470 million in additional interest to fishermen and others affected by the spill. Checks to the plaintiffs range from a few hundred dollars to more than $100,000.
For better or worse, at least your nightmare is over, right? Then two years later you have to watch another spill unfold in 2010 when the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster sends 200 million gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. And you fear that this disaster will unfold in the same way the Exxon Valdez spill did, with the same type of damage and same results.
And the sour cherry atop this nightmarish sundae? A collision between a barge and a cargo ship releases 168,000 gallons of bunker fuel into Galveston Bay, causing the busy Houston Ship Channel to be closed to traffic on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill.
They say those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill isn’t one anyone wants to celebrate. But it shouldn’t be forgotten. And the New York Times Retro Report on the Valdez spill below is well-worth watching, even if it conjures up unpleasant memories of that long-running nightmare.