ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Plaintiffs in the Exxon Valdez lawsuit are starting to receive their settlement money, nearly 20 years after the tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound.
The first settlement payments, in the form of direct deposits, began hitting bank accounts this week. Paper checks are expected to start going out next week.
Mark Witteveen, a former commercial fisherman, told the Anchorage Daily News that he and his wife, Bree, discovered some Exxon Valdez money in their bank account Monday.
“We waited for it, it came and we’ll take it,” the Kodiak man said. “But it’s certainly not a life-changing amount.”
Most amounts range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, but some exceed $100,000. All payments also are minus 22 percent to pay lawyers who pressed the class action lawsuit. Some money also has been set aside in case a Seattle-based processor who wants more than the allocated settlement should win on appeal.
Witteveen had given up hope of every seeing any money. “I wasn’t counting on it,” but he added, “We’ll certainly put it toward a good project.”
The state fisheries biologist is planning to use the money to build a workshop for a side business making metal fish sculptures.
Judge H. Russel Holland last month ordered the release of $151 million of the negotiated $383 million settlement stemming from a lawsuit filed in the nation’s worst oil spill. The remainder will be paid later.
The money will be distributed to nearly 33,000 commercial fishermen and others who sued Exxon after the 1989 spill of crude in Prince William Sound.
The tanker Exxon Valdez on March 23, 1989, hit Bligh Reef and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound.
A jury in 1994 awarded plaintiffs $5 billion. That was cut in half by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court in late June, by a 5-3 vote, reduced the total to $507 million.
“Everybody’s very disgusted because of the process and the whacking we got from Exxon and the Supreme Court,” said Homer fisherman Frank Mullen. “Nobody’s thrilled, but nobody’s going to send the check back, either.”
The high court didn’t rule on whether Exxon should pay interest and sent that issue back to the 9th Circuit Court for a decision. Oral arguments are expected this month.
Interest calculated since 1994 would add an estimated $488 million, essentially doubling awards. Exxon contends it does not have to pay interest.
The first payments went to select classes of claimants including Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, Kodiak and Chignik fishermen, and subsistence users. Those direct deposits should be completed today, said Matt Jamin, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Lawyers expect later to distribute payments to other classes such as herring fishermen, Bristol Bay salmon fishermen and others, but no distribution schedule has yet been established.