Lessons of the Exxon Valdez

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Twenty years ago, the Exxon Valdez supertanker spilled at least 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound. The consequences of the spill were epic and continue to this day, impacting the environment and the economy. Instead of seeing it as just a pollution story, Riki Ott considers the Exxon Valdez disaster to be a fundamental threat to U.S. democracy.

Ott, a marine toxicologist and commercial salmon "fisherma'am" from Cordova, Alaska, opens her book on the disaster, "Not One Drop," with the words of Albert Einstein: "No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it."

The massive spill stretched 1,200 miles from the accident site, and covered 3,200 miles of shoreline and an incredible 10,000 square miles overall. Early on March 24, 1989, Ott, who was on the board of the Cordova District Fishermen United, was airborne, surveying the scene: "[I]t was a surreal scene. It was just drop-dead gorgeous, March, sunrise, pink mountains glistening with the sunrise. And all of a sudden we come on the scene, where there's this red deck of this oil tanker that's three football fields long; flat, calm water, dark blue; and there's this inky-black stain that's just stretching with the tide."

News of the spill went global, and people poured into Valdez, Alaska, to start the cleanup. Sea life was devastated. Ott says up to half a million sea birds died, along with 5,000 sea otters, 300 or so harp seals, and billions of young salmon, fish eggs and young juvenile fish. The death of the fish eggs created a long-term but delayed impact on the herring and salmon fisheries in Prince William Sound. By 1993, the fisheries had collapsed. Families lost their livelihoods after taking huge loans to buy boats and expensive fishing permits. While the salmon fishery has improved, the herring have never come back.

This economic disruption is one basis of legal action against ExxonMobil, the biggest oil corporation in the world. Complex litigation has dragged on for two decades, and ExxonMobil is winning. There are 22,000 plaintiffs suing ExxonMobil. A jury awarded the plaintiffs $5 billion in damages, equal to what was, at the time, a year's worth of Exxon profits. This was cut by half by a U.S. appeals court, then finally lowered to just over $500 million by the Supreme Court. During the 20 years of court battles, 6,000 of the original plaintiffs have died. ExxonMobil, with its billions in annual profits and armies of lawyers, can tie up the Valdez case in the courts for decades, while the injured commercial fishers slowly die off.

The power of ExxonMobil to battle tens of thousands of citizens has pushed Ott to join a growing number of activists who want to put corporations back in their place by stripping them of their legal status as "persons." A 19th century U.S. Supreme Court decision gave corporations the same status as people, with access to the protections of the Bill of Rights. Ironically, this comes from the 14th Amendment's "equal protection clause," adopted to protect freed slaves from oppressive state laws after the Civil War. Corporations were historically chartered by states to conduct their business. States could revoke a corporation's charter if it broke the law or acted beyond its charter.

Corporations' "free speech" is interpreted to include making campaign contributions and lobbying Congress. People who break laws can be locked up; when a corporation breaks the law -- even behaving criminally negligently, causing death -- rarely are the consequences greater than a fine, which the corporation can write off on its taxes. As Ott put it, "If 'three strikes and you're out' laws can put a person in prison for life, why not a corporation?" So-called tort reform in U.S. law is eroding an individual's ability to sue corporations and the ability for courts to assess damages that would actually deter corporate wrongdoing.

Ott and others have drafted a "28th Amendment" to the Constitution that would strip corporations of their personhood, subjecting them to the same oversight that existed for the first 100 years of U.S. history.

With the global economic meltdown and welling public outrage over the excesses of executives at AIG as well as over other bailout beneficiaries, now just might be the time to expand public engagement over the imbalance of power between people and corporations that has undermined our democracy.

Amy Goodman is the co-founder, executive producer and host of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on more than 450 public broadcast stations in North America.

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