After a nearly 20-year wait, thousands of commercial fishermen and other plaintiffs are on the brink of collecting punitive damages for the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.
The checks won’t be anything like the blockbuster payments many hoped for after a federal jury awarded them $5 billion — an amount the U.S. Supreme Court this summer cut by 90 percent.
Still, dozens of fishermen can expect checks for more than $100,000. And a few will range up to around $400,000.
As soon as today, federal Judge H. Russel Holland could clear the way for the payments, assuming he rejects a late effort from one plaintiff to re-jigger the complex plan for dividing the money.
The payout would mark the beginning of the end of an epic court case that has caused unprecedented angst among Alaskans.
But the payments are not seen as a victory among fishermen, who are still mad about the oil spill as well as the long struggle to win punitive damages from Exxon Mobil Corp.
“It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick,” said William Yankee, a Prince William Sound salmon fisherman who’s on the list for nearly $58,000.
Riki Ott , a Cordova activist, is listed to receive nearly $29,000 from her past as a salmon gillnetter. These days, she’s busy promoting “Not One Drop ,” the latest of her two books on the oil spill.
She said many people in Cordova, the main fishing port in Prince William Sound, are still struggling with the spill’s fallout and won’t be able to let it go until the litigation is over, the Sound’s herring return and people have “an assurance that something like this won’t ever happen again.”
“Closure is more than money,” Ott said.
Exxon Valdez claimants won’t get to keep all the money they’re listed to receive. Fees will be deducted to pay the lawyers who fought Exxon on behalf of the nearly 33,000 fishermen, cannery workers, land owners, Alaska Natives and others who claimed harm from the spill.
Claimants also will have to pay income taxes on whatever punitive damages they receive.
As part of a huge economic bailout plan passed recently, Congress included tax breaks for Exxon Valdez claimants that allow them to stretch out the tax hit over three years and put some of the money into retirement tax shelters.