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Oil-spill victims turn to Congress

Apr 27, 2006 | The Seattle Times

Eileen Mullen, a fisherman's daughter and a fisherman's sister, was one of the few women with her own commercial fishing boat in Prince William Sound 17 years ago.

She began as a deckhand in her teens and saved enough to buy The Peggy J in 1985. But four years later, the Exxon Valdez oil spill destroyed her and her brother's fishing businesses.

She now runs a bed and breakfast in Homer, Alaska.

"But," she said as tears welled up, "there isn't a day I don't wake up and wish I was still fishing."

This week, Mullen, 58, came to Capitol Hill with others from Washington and Alaska whose livelihoods were wiped out by the spill in Prince William Sound.

She and her companions want Exxon Mobil to pay the $4.5 billion in punitive damages they won in a trial in 1994, five years after the spill.

The award was upheld by a federal appeals court, but the 33,000 plaintiffs still are waiting for their checks. More than 5,200 of the plaintiffs are from Washington state.

Today, they will join Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, to press members of Congress to sign a letter to Exxon asking it to pay up.

The three members of Alaska's congressional delegation sent a letter to Exxon a couple weeks ago, urging the company to resolve the issue soon.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, met with some of the victims Wednesday. "Sen. Murkowski believes this has gone on too long. She would like this quickly settled, and she has conveyed this to Exxon," her aide Kevin Sweeney said.

Reichert's event in the Capitol coincides with Exxon Mobil's release of its quarterly profits statement today. The company made $36 billion in profits last year, driven by high oil and gasoline prices after Hurricane Katrina.

Pressure on the oil industry is growing again, amid a new round of rising gasoline prices.

Reichert and the victims are working to win the support of Alaska's two senators and one representative, all Republicans. But Exxon is one of the leading political contributors to the Republican Party, and an important force in Alaska politics.

The Alaskans, Sens. Murkowski and Ted Stevens, and Rep. Don Young, hadn't signed Reichert's letter by Wednesday. But Reichert said that "Congressman Young has encouraged me to push forward."

Reichert will formally begin circulating the letter in the House today.

Among the signatories so far is Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, chair of the House Republican Conference. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, and Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, also signed on.

"I believe it is time for Exxon Mobil to resolve this litigation and accept the legal consequences of its actions," Smith said.

Seattle fisherman Erik Ask said he came to D.C. this week "to get justice" on behalf of his father. Kjartan Ask, 78, still fishes each season. "We're finally past the point where we wait for the check to come," Erik Ask said. It's time to act, he said.

The Exxon Valdez plaintiffs brought pictures of them in happier days on their boats. They also brought a sealed plastic bag with a large tar ball from sediment that remains in the beaches of Prince William Sound.

"You only have to dig down a foot to find the oil," Bellingham fisherman Bill Black said. "The cold temperatures have kept a lot of it here after all this time, and after the cleanup that Exxon talks about."

Exxon has been appealing the punitive-damage award since 1994. It argued in court in January that it should pay no more than $25 million.

"We want to get this case behind us," said Exxon spokesman Mark Boudreaux.

He added that the company has paid about $3 billion for the cleanup and costs to those immediately affected by the spill.

"We believe that actual damages associated with the spill have been paid," Boudreaux said.

Reichert's opponent in this year's congressional election, Darcy Burner, said that while she supports Reichert's efforts, "I'll be more impressed when he does something. He could introduce legislation, or push to roll back big oil companies' billion-dollar tax breaks."

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