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February 29, 2008

Feathers matted with crude oil, the bird looked sculpted of molten iron— only its faltering movements and blinking eyes indicated it was alive, if barely. Oiling of feathers, as well as fur, can lead to death from smothering, drowning, hypothermia, and ingestion of toxic hydrocarbons, we were horrified to learn nearly two decades ago.

In fact, an estimated 250,000 seabirds, along with 1,000 to 2,800 sea otters and 300 harbor seals lost their lives in the immediate wake of the largest oil spill in U.S. history, resulting from the tanker Exxon Valdez running aground off the shores of Alaska. The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the 1989 spill determined that its probable causes included alcohol impairment by the tanker’s captain and negligence by his Exxon Shipping bosses in supervising him and in ensuring a rested and adequate crew.

The shock and outrage felt by those of us who witnessed the catastrophe are again made raw by the news that ExxonMobil is taking its fight to the Supreme Court to overturn, or at least reduce, the 1994 punitive-damage ruling against it for its role in causing the spill. (This is the same ExxonMobil, by the way, that in 2007 broke its own record for annual profit by a U.S. corporation.)

Perhaps one benefit of this craven battle by ExxonMobil is that the spill is again in the news. Given the incredibly shrinking attention span of the media and their audience, it’s worth reminding the public of the damage caused by the spill, and of its continuing harm to wildlife even while the media’s spotlight has shifted elsewhere: Approximately 20 acres of shoreline in Alaska’s Prince William Sound remain contaminated with oil, according to a 2001 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study. This persistence of oil produces chronic, long-term exposure risks for some species, scientists say. The affected species won’t be given a hearing at the Supreme Court’s deliberations, of course, but what a day for cosmic justice if they were.