Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Stain remains — Local fisherman wait to hear what payout in Exxon suit will be
By Jenny Neyman
For Steve M. Schoonmaker, the moment came while rebuilding a skiff in Kasilof with the radio playing in the background.
“It’s like the feeling you get when you go up to a stop sign or yield sign and there’s something wrong, the car doesn’t stop,” he said. “Then I heard ‘major oil spill.’ Then they said, ‘in Prince William Sound.’”
He heard the words. He understood them. But he didn’t — couldn’t — relate their meaning to the reality of the situation: That he had suddenly been inducted into a fraternity of frustration and financial turmoil, with dues paid in lost income and suddenly worthless fishing permits, and membership now approaching 20 years.
The specifics of how the 1989 oil spill fouled the lives of the more than 32,000 plaintiffs in the civil case seeking punitive damages against Exxon Mobil Corp. vary from person to person. But there are common moments linking them all: When they first heard about the spill. When they began to comprehend just how devastating it was. And more recently, when news came June 25 that the U.S. Supreme Court reduced the judgment against Exxon from $2.5 billion to $507.5 million.
For Schoonmaker, comprehension of the spill’s magnitude dawned when he and his then-wife, Elizabeth, got to their Prince William Sound setnet site in Main Bay in June 1989 following the March 24 spill.
Cleanup crews hadn’t gotten to that part of the sound yet. The only remediation effort in the area was a seine boat tending a boom in front of the salmon hatchery in the bay. They decided to start cleaning themselves, but were told they didn’t have the right equipment so they should wait for the Exxon-organized cleanup effort to arrive. It didn’t show up until July, Schoonmaker said.
“I didn’t know then that they didn’t know what they were doing,” he said.
Schoonmaker, now 51, had bought his setnet permit in 1984, shortly after a new hatchery in Main Bay started producing runs of pink salmon, then chums and reds. He paid $35,000 for the permit, and was doing well enough by ’89 with reds selling for $2 a pound and pinks getting $1 per pound that he decided to buy a place in Kasilof. A month later, the Exxon tanker Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sound.
When it came time for Exxon to compensate fishermen for lost income due to the spill, Schoonmaker’s share was about $78,000. It was less than he figures he would have made had he fished that year, but within the same ballpark.
The problem was that the spill’s impact on the fishery wasn’t contained to just the ’89 season. But neither was there a clear oily line tracing from the specifics of the fishery’s decline to Exxon’s fingerprints.
Schoonmaker was able to fish his setnet site again two years after the spill. By then the most obvious signs of the oil had dissipated. The air didn’t reek of hydrocarbon and black sludge wasn’t being baked onto the rocks. But to anyone who knew the area, it was clearly changed. The rock at the mouth of the bay that used to be covered shoulder to shoulder in cormorants was bare. The herring and shrimp had disappeared. Seals were few and far between. So were the salmon, and the high price they’d fetched had declined along with their run strength.
Schoonmaker had lost something, too, beyond money. Part of the reason he got into fishing was the lifestyle. He remembers being in Kodiak working as a Department of Fish and Game technician, watching the boats go in and out of the harbor and thinking, “Oh, I gotta do that.”
“To me the reason I’m out fishing is to be there with the wind in my hair and the wildlife and all we have right here. That’s what it’s about for me,” he said. “To try to deduce how many dollars I lost, I had to remove myself emotionally to do that, and it’s hard.”
It would likewise be hard imagining Schoonmaker as anything other than a fisherman. He fits the image nearly to the point of stereotype: flannel or woolen shirt, rubber boots even on dry land, longish hair curling out under an ever-present ball cap, a face that’s seen plenty of wind, sun and salt.
Schoonmaker sold his setnet permit in 1996. In 1990 he had bought a gillnet herring permit for the Kodiak area for $31,000 and wanted to get a setnet permit there, too. But in 1997 the Japanese market collapsed, which dried up demand for Kodiak herring. Suddenly Schoonmaker’s herring permit was worth all of $5,000, not that he could find anybody to sell it to.
He did odd jobs for a while, carpentry, bear guard for oil crews and guiding tourists and hunters in the Kenai Mountains and Alaska Range. In 2000 he got back into fishing with a state loan for a $60,000 driftnet salmon permit in Prince William Sound, followed by a $40,000 boat.
It’s nice because it’s a long season, from May 15 through the end of September. But with diesel at $6 a gallon and buyers becoming increasingly conglomerate-owned, Schoonmaker has been thinking about finding another line of work, another lifestyle that appeals to him.
He’d like to set up an ecotourism business doing guided horse trips in the Wrangell Mountains. He’d especially like to get the money he thought he had coming to him from the Exxon punitive damages suit to make it happen.
“It was this carrot that was held out there,” he said. “Pie in the sky dreams. You tease yourself with that for a while then live with the disappointment.”
At one point Schoonmaker thought he’d be getting about $900,000 from the $5 billion punitive judgment awarded in Anchorage court in 1994. In 2006 the judgment was cut in half by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court on Exxon’s appeal. On June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court reduced it to $507.5 million. Plaintiffs are still waiting to hear whether or not Exxon will be required to pay interest on that amount.
Just like the day he heard of the spill, Schoonmaker remembers the moment he heard he wouldn’t be getting what he thought was coming to him.
He was fishing in Port Nellie Juan. Taking a nap.
“One of my buddies came on the radio and said, ‘They overruled it. The bastards aren’t going to pay,’” he said. “I woke up to that. It was a rainy, gray day. I didn’t expect that.”
Friends had been cautioning him not to depend on getting the money. He’d argued when his former brother-in-law, a lawyer, predicted Exxon would get out of having to pay.
“I think I can honestly say I was counting on it,” he said. “That was foolish.”
To Schoonmaker, the ruling demonstrates the power of corporate influence in America today. It’s the golden rule on a national scale, he said — they who have the gold make the rules.
“It seems like all of us owe something to our society, our environment. Maybe it should be in proportion to what you take, but how do you hold someone liable to that?” He said. “… How do you slap the hand of Exxon when their sole purpose is money?
“I lost a lot of respect. Not that I had a lot left, I guess,” he said.
When Greg Bosick, of Kasilof, heard there’d been a massive oil spill in Prince William Sound, his response was, “Well, that can’t happen,” he said.
The first comprehension of the spill’s magnitude came after a friend flew over the spill and showed him pictures.
“Then it was pretty much obvious it was devastating,” he said. “That year it was so devastating. It wrecked so many lives — divorces, suicide, people going bankrupt. It was just incredible. It took many years for people financially to barely hold their ground.”
Bosick had herring permits in Prince William Sound and herring and salmon permits in Lower Cook Inlet in 1989. He was on his way to Prince William Sound for the herring season when the spill happened.
Before the spill it could cost around $220,000 to get into the herring fishery in the sound. Now a permit’s worth $10,000, Bosick said. A salmon permit went from around $150,000 before the spill to $20,000-$40,000 now.
“You took loans out to get the permits and equipment. Then you couldn’t sell the stuff,” Bosick said.
With the herring fishery in the sound demolished and halibut going to an individual fishing quota system shortly after that, that left the Bosicks to seine for salmon in Cook Inlet and eventually back in the sound.
“You have your really good years and really bad years,” Bosick said.
The year after the spill the price of pink salmon dropped drastically, making for some of those really bad years.
“My wife became a teacher. We cut the Visa cards up. It was a meager living,” he said.
Luckily they weren’t in much debt at the time, having built their house out of pocket on family homestead land. And Bosick had the luxury of using family as deckhands. His wife, Marina, had grown up fishing with her father, Grant Fritz. Their kids — daughter, Molly, and sons, Gregory and Garrett — started fishing when they were 10 or 11.
“But it was a struggle just to make the boat payments and keep the gear going,” Bosick said.
Salmon fishing in the sound has finally rebounded to the point where their season’s gross about equals what they made before the spill. But the herring fishery never recovered.
“It’s pretty much like taking your livelihood, taking half of it away,” he said. “The loss of the herring is what really hurt us, because it was always a backup for salmon season.”
With two kids in college and one soon headed that way, a house and boat to pay off and retirement to plan for, money from an Exxon settlement would have had many uses. But the Bosicks weren’t balancing their budget on it.
“We weren’t expecting it, but we were hoping for it,” Bosick said.
Since the Bosicks were just starting out in 1989, they were able to regroup and recover financially without Exxon’s help. That was harder to do for people like Bosick’s father-in-law, who was already looking toward retirement when the spill hit.
“Now he’s 75 and he’s living on a fixed income, where before that he was living OK,” Bosick said. “He couldn’t even sell out of fishing, and that was part of his retirement.
“That’s the saddest part, watching these old-timers hoping it comes in so they can go golfing or make the medical bills,” he said.
Fritz started out fishing a setnet site in Kasilof in the 1950s. He sold it in ’58, bought a boat and fished from sea ever since, either gillnetting or seining.
The year of the Exxon spill Fritz had herring and salmon permits and had just bought a new $550,000 boat.
“It was quite a blow to our income to get that oil spill happening,” he said.
Not only did his income sink, but his investments were suddenly as healthy as the herring runs he once supported his family on. For a fisherman like Fritz, who was in his mid-50s in 1989, that had a major impact on the rest of his career.
“What fishermen retire on is what they invest into their business,” said Marina Bosick, Fritz’s daughter and former deckhand. “They don’t have a pension or anything from a job so that’s what you retire on, what you invested all those years.”
Fritz and the Bosicks got reimbursed for what Exxon estimated they lost in the 1989 season. Beyond that Exxon deducted what they were paid for ’89 in determining their share of compensatory damages. The result of the math was not positive.
“We got a check for zero,” Bosick said.
“Oh yeah, we got a lot of zero checks for that year,” Marina Bosick said.
Fritz sold his seine boat to Greg and Marina three years ago, and has sold some of his homestead property along the Kasilof River to be able to retire.
Marina teaches at Tustumena Elementary School and Greg will continue fishing salmon in the sound. They won’t let this latest installment in the saga of the Exxon oil spill change how they’re living their lives, whether they get another check for zero or more than that. But it has changed their outlook.
“We’ll never be able to hold them liable for anything they ever do,” Bosick said. “They can destroy the world and no one can stop it. They can do whatever they want. It’s just a crime what Exxon is doing to the whole country, not just the fishermen.
“I think Exxon owns the country, and they own the world. What they did in the Supreme Court kind of shows that. The criminal system is a joke anymore to let that happen, but they own the country. I really believe that they own the country.”
Readjusting the cards
The Tomrdles, of Kenai, like thousands of other fishermen, found themselves stuck in a seat at the post-spill poker table.
Should they bet on the herring fishery coming back? Should they hold their permits until the next round of fish prices is dealt? Should they discard some fisheries and hope for better luck with others? Or should they fold altogether?
“Our basic philosophy has always been, if you can’t make a living at what you’re doing, you just readjust and figure out what will work,” said Kathy Tomrdle.
The hand her husband, Tom, had to shuffle consisted of a seining permit in Prince William Sound and Copper River flats gillnetting. They ended up selling the seine permit, and later buying another one. The Copper River permit was sold to their oldest son, Arvo, and now Tom longlines for halibut in the Gulf of Alaska with their youngest son, Tommy. Their daughter, Lisa, was able to get through college on her fishing income and student loans.
“When you have to borrow money from the state then have to figure out how to pay your bills, it was just completely kind of out of left field,” Kathy Tomrdle said. “It was something we weren’t prepared for. We were expanding, then kind of shut down. We just carried on. You just adjust.”
The Tomrdles lived on Perry Island for a couple of winters before the spill to watch the fish hatchery there. Kathy remembers being the only ones there. But the year of the spill it was a much different scene.
“It was like a huge city,” she said. “There were people everywhere. It just seemed to be kind of a futile effort. It just wasn’t pretty.”
Now it seems as though the last 19 years of court wrangling has been futile, as well.
“I don’t think we’ll be compensated. I didn’t think we would when it happened, just because you’re up against a corporation, which is not a real person with real feelings,” she said. “Thanks to President Bush and President Bush the Supreme Court is stacked in favor of business. I think it was pretty much a given it was not going to go well when they decided to hear it.”
At this point, all Tomrdle is hoping for is closure.
“I’ve been watching this for the last 20 years and it’s still not over. They’re still fighting it. I think it’s a pretty sad situation for the Natives and the fishermen and everyone else who was really affected by this having it drug out so long.
“It’ll be nice just to have it in the past.”