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Putting a price tag on personal damage

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cleanup is going on in the Gulf after the oil spill and putting a price tag on personal damage is difficult. The people of Prince William Sound, Alaska experienced the same thing following the Exxon Valdez spill 20 years ago.

People along the Gulf coast are facing uncertainty. And the legal fight can linger long after the cleanup.

After months of working a vessel of opportunity on the BP oil spill cleanup, George Arnesen spent his Sunday afternoon prepping his shrimp boat at the Venice marina for the first time since the spill.

"It's a real shaky market after five months of bad publicity," he told us.

Arnesen says shrimp coming out of the Gulf are only getting about one-third the price as before the spill, and from what he's seen of the juvenile shrimp, the outlook isn't much better.

"We can't keep exterminating food sources without repercussions because it never comes back. Prince William Sound is never going to have herring again," said Arnesen.

Roughly 4,000 miles away, perhaps no one understands what the Venice shrimper is going through more than fisherman John Platt of Cordova, Alaska.

"It was a make it or break it type of fishery," he said. "If you got 'em, great. If not, there's always next year. But unfortunately, there hasn't been a next year for the past eighteen years."

Platt, who took us out on the fishing vessel he uses for salmon, purchased a $235,000 herring permit after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, where the herring population initially seemed fine, but a couple years after, populations dropped and have never recovered.

"Basically, I spun my wheels for twenty years," said Platt. "I'm no better off than I was when I was when I was a twenty something-year-old kid."

Minneapolis attorney Karen Hanson Riebel spent the first 20 years of her career working on the claims program and litigation following the Exxon Valdez spill.

"When everyone brushes off their hands and goes homes and says, 'OK, that's over,' it's not over," she said.

Exxon paid the largest fine ever for an environmental crime in 1991 and $900 million through a civil settlement with the state of Alaska. It was the class action lawsuit that took years.

"I think that was a big part of why it continued to affect so many people, because there was continued uncertainty," said Hanson Riebel.

While the actual trial ended by 1994 when a jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages, the case was stuck in the appeals process, making its way to the Supreme Court in 2008, when the high court awarded just one-tenth of the initial amount to more than 30,000 fishermen, cities and native landowners.

"Can an oil company really make someone who relies on the ocean to make a living whole?" we asked.

"That's a very good question," said Alan Jeffers with Exxon Mobil.

Exxon had initially established a small compensation fund, but not to the satisfaction of many of the victims.

"Compensation is a way to try and help people, but we obviously would have preferred that it not happen," said Jeffers.

New Orleans attorney Mike Stag is representing business and property owners in the Gulf. Claimants are expected to go to the $20 billion claims fund first before considering filing a lawsuit. The goal is to make the process go more quickly than a court case.

"There's going to be a question about how long there will be a stigma on the Gulf, how long will it take for all of the oil to get out of the Gulf for the whole place to clean up," he said.

And it's the uncertainty that is most concerning for George Arnesen.

"BP is already trying to do a final offer to us," he said. "How can we do a final offer? We may not even have a fishery next year or the year after or five years from now."

Platt's final offer took 20 years.

"No, I didn't gain anything...anything at all," he said.

And he says he's still in the hole.

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Tags:
british petroleum, alaska, louisiana, gulf oil spill, local, christine dobbyn
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