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5 Years After Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Alaskans Itching for Trial : Pollution: Oil company settled with the state for $900 million in 1991, but other claimants remain. Federal suit starts May 2.

March 20, 1994|ROSANNE PAGANO | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CORDOVA, Alaska — Tides and times have been kind to Prince William Sound in the five years since the Exxon Valdez rammed a charted reef, dumping nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into pristine waters.

Storms have scoured Alaska's 1,500 miles of polluted coastline, removing about half the oil embedded in some places. Many beaches look clean. Population forecasts for bald eagles are good. The tourists are back.

"It's behind us," said John Manly, an aide to Gov. Walter J. Hickel, whose administration won a $900-million settlement from Exxon Corp. in 1991.

But it's not over for the people of Cordova, home port to Prince William Sound's commercial fishing fleet.

Cordova fishermen are among the plaintiffs who filed damage claims in the wake of the March 24, 1989, accident. They are only just getting their day in court, and until they do, they will not turn the page on the Exxon Valdez.

They blame the Valdez spill for bad salmon harvests over the last two years. They say they are just hanging on, and that massive Exxon is trying to wait them out, an assertion the company denies.

"It's been a war of attrition," said salmon fisherman R. J. Kopchak, a former Cordova city councilman whose three-story house overlooks Cordova's dock and forested Orca Bay.

A typical week's mail, stacked on Kopchak's kitchen table, contains court notices about his lawsuit: More papers to sign, more documents to file.

"We know one guy, a fisherman here with a valid claim, who just quit sending in his paperwork. Refuses to do it anymore," Kopchak said as he scanned the foggy bay.

"The longer Exxon and its attorneys can make it miserable for you, the greater the chance the settlement will be less."

Kopchak is among fishermen who say this summer's salmon season could be his make-or-break year. If the run fails or prices are weak, Kopchak said he may have to polish up his carpentry skills and move his wife and four young children somewhere else.

"I built this castle because I figured I'd live and die here," he said. "I really love this place. We don't lock our doors. We don't worry about our kids. The problem is, what I want to do is fish."

Lawyers for Exxon, the world's largest corporation, reject any suggestion that delay is a tactic. Complaints have been separated into state and federal class actions, each with separate trial judges, schedules and evidence rules.

The federal suit, scheduled to start May 2, includes 100,000 potential class members. Some estimates put the damages at $1.5 billion or more.

A trial in state Superior Court is scheduled to start June 6 and includes seven towns oiled in the spill's path. The mayors want compensation for municipal services they say were diverted in response to the spill.

Other state plaintiffs include 13 Alaska Native corporations; they claim damage to their land and archeological sites. Natives also sued Exxon in federal court over damage to their traditional ways, which depend on the sound for food.

Evidence-gathering for all these actions has consumed the last five years. The company said more than 5 million pages of documents have changed hands; nearly 2,000 depositions were taken.

A list filed by Exxon names 315 planned witnesses in the federal case. Plaintiffs plan to call 270 witnesses in a case scheduled to last all summer. Authorities will testify on marine science, land values, fish abundance and--hardest of all--whether there are any lingering effects of the spill.

In Cordova, everyone wants an Exxon settlement--even townspeople with no claim pending.

"We don't want to be known as the oil spill town any more," Mayor Margy Johnson said.

Seated at a table in the restaurant of her dockside hotel, Johnson pointed out a pair of sea otters playing in icy waters where, in late February, the fishing fleet was still idle. Some Cordovans, hoping for a new image as a tourist town, say the city should adopt a new slogan. "Sea otter capital of the world" has been mentioned.

Johnson, a can-do businesswoman, wants action.

Until it was abruptly canceled last week, she was helping organize Cordova's first "Bury the Blues Day," scheduled for March 26. The event, complete with a New Orleans-style band parading through town, was aimed at uniting the community. But organizers called it off when too many people complained they weren't yet ready to forgive and forget.

"For Cordova, the spill was like a death in the family," Johnson said. "I'm appalled that five years later there's still no settlement with Exxon. That's like trying to get over a death when you can't read the will."

Cordova, a town of nearly 2,600 on the sound's eastern edge, can be reached only by boat or plane. Nearly half the work force is directly employed in fish harvesting or processing. State labor economists reported this month there was "little prospect" that salmon prices would bounce back soon.

Employment has receded over the last three years, sales receipts dropped and more than two dozen homes are on the market, the state said.

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