Exxon’s profits versus workers’ lives

July 4, 2008

I WAS 12 years old when the Exxon Valdez tanker hit the Bligh Reef in 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil in to Prince William Sound.

Although I grew up in southeast Alaska, about 500 miles away from the site of the spill, I remember how it affected all Alaskans. The waters and coastline of Prince William Sound, like most of Alaska, was a pristine wilderness environment full of all kinds of marine and other wildlife that support an intricate ecosystem.

When the black sludge poured out of the hole in the oil tanker, it destroyed the delicate balance of life in Prince William Sound and has had repercussions throughout the state of Alaska. Not only did it kill countless seabirds, marine mammals, fish and other wildlife, but it degraded the environment to a point that it will take many more years to recover.

I remember during the mid-1980s people making record profits in the fishing industry. Fishermen and women would leave their homes to go out fishing for two to three months, work very hard and come back with enough money to survive the rest of the year without working. (Keep in mind, there is very little work in Alaska in the winter. Most people must make their living in the short summer season between May and September.)

The fishing industry, timber industry and oil industry in Alaska have all declined since the 1980s, and it has become increasingly difficult to make a living in Alaska. Tourism is the only growing industry, but it also is only viable for five months a year.

When I heard the Supreme Court's recent ruling on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, it made me sick. ExxonMobil was to pay $5 billion in punitive damages to about 30,000 Alaskans that the spill directly affected, but according to the U.S. Supreme Court, this is asking too much. This, in a year that ExxonMobil has made record profits of $40 billion due to the rising price of oil.

The Supreme Court has ordered ExxonMobil to pay only $500 million, one-tenth of the original punitive damages to the victims of the spill. This will amount to about $15,000 each. ExxonMobil will be able to pay this off in four days of business.

It has been almost 20 years since the spill and 20 percent of the plaintiffs in the case are dead, according to John Passacantando of Greenpeace. The people of Prince William Sound and Alaska have lost a lot more than $15,000 dollars since the spill. They have lost their livelihoods.

I am disgusted by the Supreme Court's decision, which is another victory for Corporate America over working people.
Dawning Greenstreet, New York City (previously Skagway, Alaska)

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