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Exxon Valdez lawyer recounts ongoing horrors of oil spill

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“The municipal government sued, there were landowners, some personal injury cases…Native subsistence rights were involved,” Bixby said.

When it came to the Exxon Valdez, he knew the lawyers had a fairly solid case to go on. At the time of the crash, the oil tanker was outside of the shipping lane, and the Coast Guard failed to alert the crew of their dangerous position near the reef. The ship’s third mate was at the helm—a maritime “no-no”—while the drunken captain slept off a bender. Exxon had also knowingly failed to maintain the onboard radar system, which, had it been working, would have warned the third mate that the tanker was about to run aground. In addition, Exxon had cut down tanker staff so those on the ship were often fatigued and overworked. In all, it was a recipe for disaster.

“The captain was…he had been drinking a lot that day. And he had a history. He had been arrested for DWI three times before, and Exxon just figured, okay, well, that’s his business,” Bixby remembered.

“The company put him through an alcohol rehabilitation program, which was a joke. I mean, he met with his alcohol counselor in a bar and they had drinks together.”

It seemed shocking that a known alcoholic with previous offenses could be in charge of such a vessel, putting an entire state’s economy and livelihoods at risk—not to mention the massive potential ecological damage if an accident were to occur. And occur it did.

Given the extensive evidence around Exxon’s negligence, the plaintiffs in the case were able to seek both compensatory and punitive damages. The amount they could collect was left up to a jury.

“The jury looked at what Exxon was making, and it was $5 billion a year. And they said, we’ll take a year of your profits,” said Bixby.

But after the initial decision, the case went to appeal courts and that $5 billion was slowly reduced to a fraction of the original damages awarded.

“We ended up getting, when all was said and done…between $1.1 and $1.2 billion,” Bixby said, adding that community members felt they’d been “bent over” during the 20-year process.

Oil companies cut corners while the public pays the price

In Valdez, a relatively wealthy oil town where a large proportion of the population is involved in (and benefitting from) the oil industry, Bixby says residents were not as likely to complain.

“But if you go over to Cordova, where they depend upon fish, that was a different story,” he said.

There, the impact was felt much more intensely.

“Commercial fishermen are a tough bunch. I have clients that would easily lean over the side of their boat and slit their mother’s throat to take a fish away from her. I mean, that’s how competitive they are,” said Bixby.

“And when I was meeting with them, they were like lost children. They just didn’t know what to do. As it went on, friends of mine that were recreational drug users became addicts, a lot of people developed severe problems with alcohol. Families broke apart, people that had planned to send their kids to college couldn’t. It totally disrupted everybody’s life…permanently.”

This is the message Bixby says is most important for people in BC to think about, as the debate continues around tankers and the Northern Gateway pipeline to the coast. British Columbians are increasingly repeating the notion that it’s not a matter of if a spill will happen, it’s simply a matter of when. And Bixby couldn’t agree more.

“I had moved to Valdez expecting something like this to happen,” he said of his own experience.

Before moving there, he said, he had known colleagues in law who were making a fortune off of personal injury cases and other lawsuits related to oil industry failures. For an attorney, it seemed living close to an oil town meant constant work and a steady income.

“The common theme throughout everything is that the oil companies are always cutting corners,” he said.

“And safety is one thing that they can save money on.”

Combine this corporate negligence with delicate ecosystems and a dangerous marine route, and that makes for quite a frightening set of circumstances. While Enbridge touts technological advances and safety precautions that they say make their Northern Gateway plans top notch, their responsibility would end at the port in Kitimat. The province has a marine oil spill response plan, but if we’ve learned anything from Valdez or the Gulf, even the best (or best-looking) attempts at remediation can never really get back all that’s lost.

“When Mother Nature kicks your ass, you can get over it. In man-made disasters, they’re much more difficult to get over when you have something of that scale,” Bixby said.

“And it’s also long-term. If you dig down in the beaches in Prince William Sound…you go down four feet and you can find oil, still.”

It’s time to think back and learn from the lessons of Valdez and the Gulf. Victims of these environmental disasters are still trying to recover, even 23 years after the fact. The Exxon Valdez oil spill and its aftermath have valuable lessons for BC's coast, which is now threatened by the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

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