From: Daisuke Wakabayashi, Reuters
Published March 27, 2006 12:00 AM

Fishermen Seek End to Alaska Oil Spill Court Case

SEATTLE — Fishermen whose livelihoods were devastated by the Exxon Valdez spill urged Exxon Mobil on the 17th anniversary of the accident Friday to pay a $4.5 billion penalty that has been mired in a legal dispute.

The punitive damage ruling -- originally $5 billion in 1994 and assessed at its current level in 2004 -- has been the subject of a decade-long legal battle between Exxon Mobil Corp. and 32,000 fishermen, Alaska natives and property owners who were awarded the damages for the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.

When the supertanker ran aground on a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989, and disgorged 11 million gallons of crude oil, fishermen through the U.S. Northwest struggled as the price of salmon plummeted and herring stocks declined dramatically over the next few years.

"This is like a 17-year divorce. It's hard to move on until this is settled," Erling Carlson, a longtime Alaska fisherman, said at a news conference in Seattle.

Exxon Mobil appealed the $4.5 billion damage ruling to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court heard oral arguments in January, but a decision could be months away.

The group of fishermen said Exxon Mobil, the world's largest company by market capitalization, could easily pay the penalty since it earned a profit of $36 billion last year, the largest annual earnings ever recorded by a U.S. company.

In the past, Exxon Mobil has argued it spent more than $2 billion on the cleanup and paid out $1.025 billion for a 1991 settlement with federal and state governments.

"We believe that all of the damages related to this tragic accident have been paid," said Mark Boudreaux, media relations manager at Exxon Mobil.

"The case is not about compensation. It's about whether punitive damages are warranted in the case," he said.

Exxon Mobil said the punitive damage ruling was unconstitutional and even if it were allowed, it should be knocked down to no more than $25 million.

The spill hit fishermen in Prince William Sound hard.

The price of a permit to fish for salmon with a seine, or large net, fell to $12,000 from $300,000 before the spill due to the lack of demand, while the price of salmon plunged to 5 cents a pound from 55 cents, according to the fishermen.

Many fishermen went bankrupt and the ones who survived are still paying off debts even though the prices for permits and salmon have bounced back slightly, the group said.

Source: Reuters

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