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CORDOVA, Alaska -- Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments from Exxon on why the company should not have to pay punitive damages related to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill that affected the region here, The Associated Press reported.
Nearly 19 years ago, the tanker ran aground at Alaska's Bligh Reef and sent 11 million gallons of crude oil into the fishing waters of Prince William Sound, the report stated. In 1994, an Anchorage jury awarded victims $5 billion in punitive damages, which has since been halved by other courts on appeals by ExxonMobil Corp., the AP reported.
Residents in Cordova, Alaska, a town 45 miles from the reef, are among the nearly 33,000 plaintiffs, which include commercial fishermen, Alaska Natives, landowners, businesses and local governments, the report stated.
"With this legal system the way it has been protracted out, people can't put it behind them," Cordova Mayor Tim Joyce told the AP. "The final recompense has never been made."
Exxon has argued it should not be liable for the actions of the ship's skipper, Joseph Hazelwood, when the supertanker hit the reef.
A Cordova resident and fisherman, Steve Smith, 69, told the AP he worries the oil company will win the case.
"I really wonder, what do you do if you don't get a just decision out of the Supreme Court," he told the AP from his boat. "I mean, there's no other court to take it to. What do you got left, really? Anarchy?"
At issue is whether Exxon should have to pay any damages under the federal Clean Water Act and centuries-old laws governing shipping, the AP reported.
Exxon has argued punitive damages would be excessive punishment, apart from the $3.5 billion in cleanup costs, compensatory payments and fines it already paid, the AP reported. In addition, the company has said the environmental effects of the spill and a claim about severe, continuing damage to the sound "is simply untrue," the AP reported.
"The environment in Prince William Sound is healthy, robust and thriving," Exxon spokesman Tony Cudmore told the AP via e-mail. "That's the conclusion of many scientists who have done extensive studies of the Prince William Sound ecosystem."
However, area residents argue the region is still a long way from being healed, the report stated. It was years before the salmon rebounded and sea otters and Harlequin ducks are still below pre-spill numbers, according to the AP. In addition, an estimated 85 tons of crude oil linger in the area, according to a federal study released last year and cited by the AP.