An unusually warm and dry winter has killed off the fish hatcheries that the people of Prince William Sound depend on for their livelihood. The gasoline needed to power their boats is nearly $6 a gallon.
So the Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday that sliced the punitive damages the hard-hit fishing villages could expect from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill was received here as insult added to injury.
“I’m expecting a call that someone I know has jumped out a building,” said Evan Beedle, who lost his boat-cleaning business in Cordova after the spill. “That’s how bad it is.”
The oil slick 19 years ago killed a rich herring hatchery, put fishermen out of work for months or years and shuttered the businesses that supported them. During the long-running legal battle, there have been bankruptcies and suicides.
Before the justices’ decision, the average payment to the 33,000 plaintiffs was expected to be $76,500. Now it’s about $15,000.
Many Alaskans had given up on receiving any compensation. Some had held out slim hopes that it could help them retire or stave off bankruptcy. But it would never be enough to make up for the damaged lives, said Derek Blake, a fisherman in Cordova.
“Seventy-five thousand a person -- if you want to talk about first-year losses, it was that times 10,” said Blake, 25. His father, Kory, had to sell his house to pay off debts after the spill.
“For 15 years it ruined my life,” Kory Blake said by cellphone from the boat where he and his son were fishing Wednesday.
In 1989 he held three different fishing permits. “I was at the peak of my game,” he said. But the spill rendered the permits worthless.
Blake had hoped the $500,000 he was due from the $2.5-billion court verdict would enable him to buy another boat and expand his fishing operation to approximate what it once had been.
“By the time the lawyers get theirs and you pay your taxes, there’s barely enough for you to sit on,” he said. “I’ll never be able to retire now. I’ll have to work up until the day I die.”
Sylvia Lange, who runs a Cordova hotel and tavern called the Reluctant Fisherman, said her parents were on the verge of retiring when the spill occurred. Like many, all their savings were tied up in their boats, which became worthless because of the pollution.
Her father died years ago; her 88-year-old mother subsists on Social Security checks. Lange and her husband had to leave Cordova and fish on the Bering Sea to make a living.
Like many in town, Lange fumed Wednesday at what she called the oil companies’ political manipulation to stack the Supreme Court with pro-business justices that helped lead to the ruling favoring Exxon Mobil Corp. She said the ruling was especially painful because fishermen are going broke because of high gas prices.
“It’s like a double-edged hurt,” Lange said.
Osa Schultz was trying to look on the bright side. “It’s over; we don’t have it hanging over our heads anymore,” she said.
Schultz and her husband, Richard, fished and operated a boat-hauling business before the spill. They took out more than $200,000 in loans to keep their business afloat after the spill decimated their customer base.
Still fishing and running their boat business, they’ve spent the last two decades trying to climb out of debt. They figure the $50,000 the family expects to get under the reduced verdict will help only slightly.
On Wednesday, the couple reflected on opportunities lost. “We were in the prime of our productive years,” said Osa Schultz, 52, “and all we could do is keep the business from folding.”
Richard Schultz scoffed at the calculations the court used to cut the punitive damages. “I don’t think they have a clue as to the losses this area suffered,” he said.