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Disappointment Runs Deep in Alaskan Fishing Town

June 25, 2008

CORDOVA, Alaska _ In a fishing town hit as hard as anywhere by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the reaction Wednesday to the Supreme Court ruling from disappointment to resignation to disgust. Many boats in the harbor were out fishing, but some were still in town because of the closure of the famous Copper River fishery.

Terry Buchholz, 60, was standing near the harbormaster’s office. He’s a longtime Cordova resident who has been gillnetting for 48 years.

“I was sick to my stomach this morning,” he said.

He spent days watching for the big announcement that finally came Wednesday. He got the news on TV about 7 a.m. Had the $2.5 billion punitive damages award against ExxonMobil held up, his tax man said he would have collected about $900,000. Now he figures it’s going to be a small fraction of that.

The ruling comes in the midst of a poor year fishing the Copper River. The salmon are either very late or it’s going to be a poor run.

“This has been a horrible year with this on top of it,” Buchholz said.

Jack Hopkins lives in Cordova and owns a seine boat called the Raven’s Child.

“Anything now would be sour grapes,” he said. At first he didn’t want to say anything, then he opened up: “We’re just shafted and get used to it.”

“I was looking for justice. Isn’t that why things go to the Supremes?”

He was sitting on his vessel with members of his crew as rain spit down on them.

Asked if he had given up hope of ever seeing any money, he said: “I was always optimistic. It’s like Ed McMahon knocking on your door. You still fill out those Reader’s Digest things, right?”

What is he going to do now? “We are hard-working people here. And we are going to keep working. We’ve got a few more fish to catch.”

In downtown Cordova, community activists were putting up banners Wednesday afternoon protesting the ruling. “CORPORATIONS ARE ABOVE THE LAW?” read one. “JUSTICE BROKEN,” read another. Another said “EXXON MADE/$ WE PAID $”

Rodger Bergquist is another plaintiff. He stood on a seiner called the Procession. He winters in Washington state but has been fishing out of Cordova for 42 years.

Without a punitive judgment, he thinks that could only lead to more accidents. “It just gives them license to be careless.”

Dave Butler, 68, of Cordova owns a seine boat called the Kyle David, named after his son who died gillnetting on the Copper River in 1979.

“It’s over with,” he said. “The court had a whole bunch of excuses for the way they ruled today.

“I sure as hell ain’t going to be retiring now. I’ve got to fish till I’m 80.”

As far as the size of the judgment, he said: “I figured they’d cut it in half, not down to where they just gave us a kiss, you know?”

“We probably won’t see a check until Christmas.”

“They threw the screws to us, no two ways about it.”

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(c) 2008, Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska).

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