Alaskan wood carver Mike Webber unveiled his "Shame Pole" this past Friday in Cordova to mark the 18th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which devastated the area and ruined lucrative herring and salmon fisheries.
The pole tells the grim story of the spill: sea ducks, a sea otter and eagle float dead on oil. A sick herring with lesions is featured. There's a boat for sale with a family crew on board, commemorating fishermen who went belly up, and a bottle of booze to remind people that Joe Hazelwood, who was captain of the Exxon Valdez, had been drinking before turning the helm of the ship over. Topping the pole is the upside-down face of former longtime Exxon CEO Lee Raymond, sporting a Pinocchio-like nose.
None of these apocalyptic images were the hardest part of the job however, as Webber told the Anchorage Daily News. "No, the toughest part was etching the words 'We will make you whole again' from the trunk of yellow cedar,' said the Alaska Native carver. That infamous promise was made to the state's inhabitants after the spill by Don Cornett, formerly Exxon's top official in Alaska.
The reality is that after eighteen years and countless false promises, ExxonMobil has still not paid the billions of dollars in punitive damages that the courts have determined it owes the spill victims--this despite the fact that the company posted the most profitable year in 2006 of any corporation in history. In 1994, a federal court in Anchorage, Alaska, awarded $5 billion in punitive damages to fishermen, Native Alaskans, and other plaintiffs in a class action suit against the oil giant. But rather than accepting its obligations Exxon has been fighting the verdict, employing hundreds of lawyers, filing countless appeals and effectively buying science that supports its claims.
This has added injury to injury as more than 30,000 people whose lives and livelihood were disrupted by the spill have now been dragged through years of litigation. During this time, according to the advocacy group ExposeExxon whose excellent mailing prompted this column, 6,000 plaintiffs have died waiting for compensation.
The company is even employing a strategy straight from the White House's fact-challenged department by arguing that the affected area of Prince William Sound has recovered and is "healthy, robust and thriving." (The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council reports that, in fact, the multi-million dollar herring fish industry, which once supported thousands of lives and livelihoods in the area, remains closed indefinitely.)
As Ashley Shelby concluded in an extensive investigative report outlining Exxon's legal tricks and maneuvers in the April 5, 2004 issue of The Nation, this is a classic story of how corporations can use and abuse the legal system and the seeming apathy of the federal government to avoid responsibility for their actions. It's been twelve years since a federal jury awarded the fishers and Natives on the Cordova sound $5.2 billion in punitive damages from Exxon, but not a single check from that award has been cut.
Thus, Webber's Shame Pole, which is in the long-standing tradition of his Tlingit ancestors, who carved such poles to embarrass rich people who owed society.
ExposeExxon is offering facsimile solidarity to Webber and his educational campaign. Clickhere to send a fax to Exxon's CEO Rex Tillerson and Exxon Board Chair Michael J. Boskin imploring them to stop appealing the guilty verdicts and pay the damages the company owes.
You can also help get the word out about ExxonMobil's misdeeds by distributing flyers in front of your neighborhood Exxon or Mobil stations, by passing the information out generally, and by writing letters to the editor of your local newspaper asking them to report on Exxon's continued refusal to pay its debts. (Click here for downloadable materials.) Lastly, if you can make it to the next exit without stopping, try to speed past Exxon and Mobil gas stations! It should be pretty simple to refuse to buy the company's gas.