Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oily Politics and Slimy Justice Systems

Photo via Greenpeace

Exxon: They're banking record profits. They're filling our atmosphere with dangerously earth-warming carbon emissions. And when, in the process of conducting business doing their dirty deeds, they happen to wreck a fragile ecosystem and disrupt the lives of thousands of citizens, they use every filthy trick imaginable to evade justice. Exxon will most likely never even begin to really pay, certainly not enough, for the cleanup and restoration efforts that, all these years later, have still not succeeded in removing the catastrophic quantities of spilled oil from the coastline of Prince William Sound.

And as for Exxon paying damages for the sins themselves? Please.

When a federal jury in Alaska in 1994 ordered Exxon to pay $5 billion to thousands of people who had their lives disrupted by the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, an appeal of the nation's largest punitive damages award was inevitable.

But almost no one could have predicted the incredible round of legal ping-pong that only this month lands at the Supreme Court.

In the time span of the battle -- 14 years after the verdict, nearly two decades since the spill itself -- claimants' lawyers say there is a new statistic to add to the grim legacy of the disaster in Prince William Sound: Nearly 20 percent of the 33,000 fishermen, Native Alaskans, cannery workers and others who triumphed in court that day are dead.

"That's the most upsetting thing, that more than 6,000 people have passed and this still isn't finished," said Mike Webber, a Native Alaskan artistic carver and former fisherman in the Prince William Sound community of Cordova. "Our sound is not healthy, and neither are the people. Everything is still on the surface, just as it was."

"The bottom line,'' said Tim Joyce, the mayor of Cordova, where half of the town's 2,400 full-time residents are parties to the suit, "is that there is still oil on the beaches. And this lawsuit still isn't finished."

The high court is scheduled to hear arguments on Wednesday on whether punishment is excessive or even permitted under maritime law. The case, Exxon Shipping v. Baker, may turn, in the eyes of the justices, on a nearly 200-year-old precedent set when privateer ships sailed the oceans, or on the more recent provisions of the Clean Water Act.

But in Alaska, the lawsuit is seen as a test of justice and corporate responsibility, and its resolution is seen as critical to healing the scars left by an epic event that defines the state's modern history, Gov. Sarah Palin (R) said in an interview.

(H/T Michael--Welcome to The Forties, dude!)

Also at Cogitamus.

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