Exxon's Valdez Fines Still Unpaid

The Exxon Valdez sits on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, after the giant tanker ran aground in March 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil. The tanker, whose name was changed to the SeaRiver Mediterranean, was barred by federal law from returning to Alaska.

In Prince William Sound, the rocky beach on the Bay of Isles looks as wild and pure as anywhere in the Alaskan wilderness.

But as CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone reports, on this beach biologist Rick Steiner can turn over a stone and still turn up oil from the Exxon Valdez.

"It's more toxic in some ways than when it came out of the tanker, because it's more concentrated," says marine biologist Rick Steiner.

But 15 years later, the company responsible for the spill is thriving. Exxon made more money than any company on Earth last year: $21 billion.

"Exxon's the biggest oil company in the world, it's the most profitable company in the world," says investment analyst Doug Cogan. "They're extremely good at what they do, which is finding oil and gas."

Exxon's merger in 1999 with Mobil means two of the biggest gasoline names now pump profits to one company: $74 billion since the merger. Fortune magazine just named Exxon one of the world's most admired companies.

But it's still not enough to erase the memory of the Exxon Valdez.

"No matter how successful they are financially, this is something that they're always going to wear around their neck," says Cogan. "It will be a ring around their collar if you will."

Many of the fishermen of Prince William Sound are still fighting Exxon.

Ten years ago, a jury ordered Exxon to pay what now amounts to $6.5 billion for damage to the fishing industry.

While many fishermen have been forced into bankruptcy in the years since, the world's most profitable company still hasn't paid a penny, as the case remains tied up in appeals.

Exxon disputes reports that the remaining oil is still causing harm to the environment.

"Quite frankly we're not surprised the oil is still there in many ways," says Dr. Frank Sprow, Exxon's vice president of Safety, Health and Environment. "That's a good sign - it shows the oil hasn't migrated out and had the potential to do damage."

But other studies show evidence that many species, from seabirds to herring and otters are showing lingering effects from the oil.

"The ecosystem has not recovered, no matter what Exxon says," says Steiner.

So Exxon remains the oil company environmentalists love to hate. But Exxon has another reputation to safeguard: its reputation as the most profitable company on earth.