Senator Murkowski addressing the Supreme Court Hearing of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Case• Mr. President, tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear the appeal of the ongoing litigation between Exxon Mobil and commercial fishermen and other plaintiffs whose livelihoods were negatively impacted by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
• The Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef at 12:04AM on March 24, 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of oil – about the same size as 125 Olympic-sized swimming pools – into Prince William Sound in Alaska. The oil from the spill migrated several hundred miles from Bligh Reef and polluted roughly 1,300 miles of Alaska shoreline. 11,000 square miles of ocean were ultimately affected by this spill, which is believed to be the worst oil spill worldwide with respect to environmental damage.
• Regrettably, the spill area is still affected nearly 19 years later. In 2001, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studied the shoreline of Prince William Sound for any remaining effects of the spill. Scientists reviewed 91 sites within Prince William Sound and found that 58 percent of these locations were still polluted by oil. Some estimates note that beaches and streams in this area are still polluted with over 25,000 gallons of oil.
• Of course, the fisheries in Prince William Sound also were affected. The herring fishery in this area experienced a dramatic decrease in the years immediately after the 1989 spill. As of 2007, the herring fishery had not improved to pre-1989 levels. Another example is the value of fishing permits in this part of Alaska. In 1988, a fishing permit in Prince William Sound was worth $400,000. As of 2004, however, the value of each such permit was less than $70,000 – a drop of more than 82 percent.
• A class action jury trial was held in Federal court in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1994. The plaintiffs included over 30,000 commercial fishermen among others whose livelihoods were gravely affected by this disaster. The jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages to the plaintiffs. The punitive damage award has been on repeated appeal by Exxon Mobil since then. On December 22, 2006, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reduced the punitive damage award to $2.5 billion. In early 2007, Exxon Mobil petitioned the Ninth Circuit for a rehearing en banc. Within a few months, the Ninth Circuit denied this petition and Exxon Mobil appealed to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, several thousand plaintiffs have passed away since the litigation began.
• Due to the limitations in admiralty law with respect to the recovery of compensatory damages, many Exxon Valdez plaintiffs were not able to recover the financial losses they sustained in the aftermath of this spill. Therefore, punitive damages will provide them with such compensation.
• Once the Supreme Court decided to hear this case, I joined with the Senior Senator from Alaska and Representative Don Young in submitting an Alaska Congressional Delegation amicus brief to the United States Supreme Court. In the brief, we argue that the award of punitive damages in this case of reckless and wanton conduct by Exxon not only is permissible under the Clean Water Act, but is supported by federal maritime law. Only punitive damages will provide those who were harmed—and continue to be harmed—with the justice and fair compensation they deserve.
• This litigation simply needs to end – 19 years is too long for these plaintiffs to wait to be compensated for their lost income. I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs in this case.