18 years after spill, oil giant still doesn’t get it

It would be interesting to know how much money Exxon Mobil Corp. has spent trying to fight the $2.5 billion in punitive damages it is supposed to pay for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Last week, Exxon Mobil launched its final shot at an appeal, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision to uphold the $2.5 billion in damages, which the court had reduced from $5 billion. Exxon has fought the judgment for more than a decade.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the plaintiffs say that about 20 percent of their clients have died. Those remaining include about 33,000 commerical fishermen, cannery workers, landowners, Natives, local governments and businesses.

The spill was the largest in U.S. history — dumping more than 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, threatening the food chain that supports the area’s commercial fishing industry and endangering 10 million migratory shore birds and waterfowl, hundreds of sea otters and dozens of other species such as harbor porpoises, and several varieties of whales.

Exxon Mobil says it has spent more than $3.5 billion as a result of the spill, including compensatory payments, cleanup payments and settlements. It says the punitive damages are unwarranted because the spill was an accident.

Yes, it was an accident. But a preventable one. The National Transportation Safety Board identified a number of factors under the control of the captain or the company that contributed to the grounding of the ship.

Exxon’s lawyers question whether it’s legal for the 9th Circuit to impose punitive damages under maritime law against Exxon for the behavior of one of its captains if Exxon didn’t have a direct role in the captain’s behavior, and if the captain’s behavior was contrary to company policy.

If Exxon isn’t responsible for its captains, who is?

Exxon Mobil just doesn’t get it.

In a statement explaining its latest appeal, the company opens with: “We acknowledge that the Exxon Valdez oil spill was a very emotional event for many in Alaska, and to some, those feelings remain strong even today.”

That condescending sentence alone warrants punitive damages.

A very emotional event for many in Alaska? Try an unprecedented environmental disaster.

Feelings about the “spill” (sounds small and accidental) remain strong today for millions of people worldwide, not just “some” in Alaska.

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