Saturday, March 31, 2007

We will make you whole again

On March 24, 1989 Captain Joe Hazelwood was drunk on duty of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez and ran it aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Exxon (now ExxonMobil) did nothing to contain or clean up the spill for three days of clear weather. On the fourth day, a storm hit, spreading crude oil across 3,200 miles of coastline. In the face of one of the greatest man-made environmental disasters in history, Exxon official Don Cornett told the Price William Sound community "We will make you whole again."

Not only did the oil spill cause environmental havoc, but it also meant ruin to the locals: ruin to their livelihoods, ruin to their businesses, and in some cases, ruin to their health due to exposure to the toxic chemicals used to clean up the oil. Eighteen years later, the area has still not recovered from the disaster: out of the thirty significant species in the area, seven have not recovered at all, and only ten have recovered fully. With such long-lasting damage to the environment, neither has the economy of the area. The multi-million dollar herring industry which supported the local economy has been closed indefinitely.

In 1994, a US Federal Court awarded the 34,000 locals affected US$4.5 billion dollars in punitive damages: about $26,000 per person per year at the time. This was on top of the $300 million in voluntary payments Exxon made to eleven thousand of the locals.

Eighteen years after the disaster, Exxon have still not paid the damages. Of the 34,000 people who are yet to received one cent to compensate them for the harm caused by Exxon's negligence, about six thousand people have died.

The purpose of punitive damages is to discourage negligent and harmful behavior. Has ExxonMobil been discouraged? As early as 1994 they had written off for tax purposes $2.8 billion, turning what could have been a big loss into a small loss. They successfully sued their insurer, Lloyds of London, and recouped $411 million for cleanup expenses and interest. Exxon has still not fitted double-hulls on its tankers in the area, displaying an appallingly negligent attitude.

In 2005 ExxonMobil had the most profitable year of any corporation in history, posting a profit of $36 billion dollars. Obviously not enough for them to pay off their obligations to the people of Prince William Sound.

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