The millions of dollars Exxon Mobil Corp. has surrendered as punishment for the Prince William Sound oil spill have started hitting the streets, nearly 20 years after the disaster.
Several commercial fishermen who joined in the lawsuit against Exxon reported receiving direct deposits in their bank accounts Monday. Paper checks are expected to go out in the mail in the next week.
The payments mark the beginning of a process to distribute $383 million among nearly 33,000 commercial fishermen and other plaintiffs.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs and Exxon continue to battle in court over whether the oil company owes interest on the punitive damages award. If so, the interest could roughly double the total payout.
Frank Mullen, a Homer salmon fisherman and financial planner, said Monday he hadn't yet received a direct deposit himself but heard from four or five others who did.
An Anchorage jury originally decided in 1994 that Exxon owed $5 billion for the 11-million-gallon oil spill, which disrupted many of the state's commercial fisheries and sullied miles of beaches. Over many years, however, Exxon's lawyers succeeded in whittling down the amount to a fraction of the jury award.
"Everybody's very disgusted because of the process and the whacking we got from Exxon and the Supreme Court," Mullen said. "Nobody's thrilled, but nobody's going to send the check back, either."
In recent weeks, lawyers for the plaintiffs filed long lists in court specifying the amount to be paid to each claimant. Most of the amounts range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, but some exceed $100,000.
Lawyers will deduct about 22 percent from each payment as compensation for pressing the epic class action against Exxon.
These first payments are going to select classes of claimants including Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, Kodiak and Chignik fishermen, as well as subsistence users.
Later, the lawyers expect to distribute payments to other classes such as herring fishermen, Bristol Bay salmon fishermen and others. No schedule has been announced yet for these payments.
Mark Witteveen, a state fisheries biologist in Kodiak who used to fish commercially, said 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," Witteveen said. "But it's certainly not a life-changing amount."
Witteveen said he plans to use the money to build a workshop for his sideline making fish sculptures out of steel, copper and other metals.
Like many fishermen who said they'd all but given up hope of ever seeing any money from Exxon, Witteveen said, "I wasn't counting on it."
"But we'll certainly put it toward a good project," he said.
Exxon long held that it didn't owe punitive damages, arguing it already had spent $3.4 billion as a result of the spill including compensatory payments, cleanup payments, settlements and fines.
Over the summer, however, the U.S. Supreme Court said the company owed up to $507.5 million in punitive damages.
While some plaintiffs were receiving payments Monday, others reported receiving nothing, even though they had signed up for direct deposit.
"I didn't get mine yet," said RJ Kopchak, of Cordova. "I'm not worried about it, though. The longer it takes, the more it's worth, the way the stock market's been going."
Matt Jamin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said direct deposits should be completed by today.