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Forum Post: Remembering the Exxon Valdez

Posted 6 years ago on May 24, 2012, 2:28 a.m. EST by JackHall (413)
This content is user submitted and not an official statement

Over twenty years ago, the Exxon Valdez supertanker spilled at least 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound. The consequences of the spill were epic and continue to this day, impacting the environment and the economy.

Instead of seeing it as just a pollution story, Riki Ott considers the Exxon Valdez disaster to be a fundamental threat to U.S. democracy. Ott, a marine toxicologist and commercial salmon “fisherma’am” from Cordova, Alaska, opens her book on the disaster, “Not One Drop,” with the words of Albert Einstein: “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.”The massive spill stretched 1,200 miles from the accident site, and covered 3,200 miles of shoreline and an incredible 10,000 square miles overall.

Early on March 24, 1989, Ott, who was on the board of the Cordova District Fishermen United, was airborne, surveying the scene: “[I]t was a surreal scene. It was just drop-dead gorgeous, March, sunrise, pink mountains glistening with the sunrise. And all of a sudden we come on the scene, where there’s this red deck of this oil tanker that’s three football fields long; flat, calm water, dark blue; and there’s this inky-black stain that’s just stretching with the tide.”News of the spill went global, and people poured into Valdez, Alaska, to start the cleanup.

Sea life was devastated. Ott says up to half a million sea birds died, along with 5,000 sea otters, 300 or so harp seals, and billions of young salmon, fish eggs and young juvenile fish. The death of the fish eggs created a long-term but delayed impact on the herring and salmon fisheries in Prince William Sound. By 1993, the fisheries had collapsed. Families lost their livelihoods after taking huge loans to buy boats and expensive fishing permits. While the salmon fishery has improved, the herring have never come back.

This economic disruption is one basis of legal action against ExxonMobil, the biggest oil corporation in the world. Complex litigation has dragged on for two decades, and ExxonMobil is winning. There are 22,000 plaintiffs suing ExxonMobil. A jury awarded the plaintiffs $5 billion in damages, equal to what was, at the time, a year’s worth of Exxon profits. This was cut by half by a U.S. appeals court, then finally lowered to just over $500 million by the Supreme Court. During the 20 years of court battles, 6,000 of the original plaintiffs have died. ExxonMobil, with its billions in annual profits and armies of lawyers, can tie up the Valdez case in the courts for decades, while the injured commercial fishers slowly die off.

The power of ExxonMobil to battle tens of thousands of citizens has pushed Ott to join a growing number of activists who want to put corporations back in their place by stripping them of their legal status as “persons.” A 19th century U.S. Supreme Court decision gave corporations the same status as people, with access to the protections of the Bill of Rights. Ironically, this comes from the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection clause,” adopted to protect freed slaves from oppressive state laws after the Civil War. Corporations were historically chartered by states to conduct their business. States could revoke a corporation’s charter if it broke the law or acted beyond its charter. Corporations’ “free speech” is interpreted to include making campaign contributions and lobbying Congress. People who break laws can be locked up; when a corporation breaks the law—even behaving criminally negligently, causing death—rarely are the consequences greater than a fine, which the corporation can write off on its taxes. As Ott put it, “If ‘three strikes and you’re out’ laws can put a person in prison for life, why not a corporation?”

So-called tort reform in U.S. law is eroding an individual’s ability to sue corporations and the ability for courts to assess damages that would actually deter corporate wrongdoing. Ott and others have drafted a “28th Amendment” to the Constitution that would strip corporations of their personhood, subjecting them to the same oversight that existed for the first 100 years of U.S. history. With the global economic meltdown and welling public outrage over the excesses of executives at AIG as well as over other bailout beneficiaries, now just might be the time to expand public engagement over the imbalance of power between people and corporations that has undermined our democracy.





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[-] 1 points by freehorseman (267) from Miles City, Mt 5 years ago

who else are we going to buy gas from?I can use my horse for local stuff,but on the long haul I need a little more speed.

[-] 2 points by JackHall (413) 5 years ago

Speed is important in a large country like this. I thought the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster had been cleaned-up and life over there had returned to normal. Not exactly. Exxon has been very slow about solving this problem they created over 20 years ago. The enormous profits Exxon has collected in recent years has not benefitted the victims of this environmental catastrophe.

Basically a pattern emerges that corporations can run amok creating huge calamities, pay cents on the dollar in penalties and pass on ridiculous profits to share holders.

[-] 1 points by freehorseman (267) from Miles City, Mt 5 years ago

This is so .The problem has been here since 1973 when kissinger threatend Opec with military force if they did not open the spigot..A total lack of leadership at the top of the american political food chain.This is due to corporate influance. If you refuse to solve a problem for forty years it is not because you can't, but won't.

[-] 1 points by Nevada1 (5843) 5 years ago

Hi Jack, Thank you for post. Best Regards

[-] 1 points by freewriterguy (882) 5 years ago

great post jackhall

[-] 1 points by JIFFYSQUID92 (-994) from Portland, OR 6 years ago

Yes, it was a Kinder and Gentler Oil Spill!

We should have dumped fossil fuels 40 years ago!!

[-] 1 points by JackHall (413) 6 years ago

The British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is larger than the Exxon spill. Shhhh.

[-] 1 points by DKAtoday (33487) from Coon Rapids, MN 5 years ago

Can you go back and toss in some text breaks. That solid wall of text is kind of hard to look at.

[-] 1 points by JackHall (413) 5 years ago

ok. I formatted the essay into more manageable paragraphs for reading.

[-] 1 points by DKAtoday (33487) from Coon Rapids, MN 5 years ago

Thanks that is much better.