Gulf residents face uncertain future in wake of BP oil disaster

posted on:
September 21, 2010

author:
KURT NILAND

category:
Environmental

After five long months fraught with anxiety and stress, Gulf Coast residents finally heard some uplifting news: the blown-out well that threatens to destroy their health, businesses, way of life, and communities with massive clumps of sticky oil has been permanently sealed. But as BP’s stocks rise and the rest of the world starts to look beyond the environmental disaster, residents of coastal Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi will be left dealing with the spill’s aftermath for years to come.

Scientists who have attempted to measure the spill estimate that nearly 200 million gallons and millions of cubic feet of natural gas blew out of the well into the Gulf waters. Cleanup and containment crews, many of them out-of-work fishermen recruited to BP’s “Vessels of Opportunity” program, deployed boom around surface slicks or ply the beaches shoveling tar into trash bags.

Other cleanup efforts included massive burns of surface oil and the application of chemical dispersants in unprecedented quantities, a strategy that led to the formation of a thick oily sludge on the Gulf floor stretching from Venice, Louisiana, to Panama City, Florida. Because an oil spill of this size has never occurred before, scientists are unable to determine which is more toxic to the Gulf’s ecology: the crude oil rising to the surface or the chemical dispersants used in ways never used before and in much larger quantities. The prevailing attitude is one of “time will tell.”

For now, all coastal residents who have been hurt by the oil spill can do is to get by on what work is left and make claims to BP for financial losses. Neither is a good option. Some fishing grounds have reopened but fish, shrimp, and oysters could remain scarce for seasons. Regardless of supply, the oil spill continues to tarnish perception of Gulf seafood. Demand for it has bottomed out, driving down prices and leaving fishermen and seafood businesses in strict survival mode.

Unfortunately, economic survival on the Gulf Coast right now means that individuals and businesses are forced to rely on the claims they make to BP. But for most, the payments on those claims are too little and too late. Most claimants have received only the smallest fraction of what they need to survive weeks after requesting it, if anything.

The Obama administration ordered BP to establish a $20-billion fund for oil spill claims in an effort to facilitate getting people the help they need to get through the disaster. Tens of thousands of people are making claims. Businesses of every imaginable type have suffered devastating losses as the impact of the spill continues to ripple throughout the region. The fund’s administrator Ken Feinberg initially said that it would take just 48 hours for his staff to process the claims, but a reality check seems to have arrived in the form of claimants lacking sufficient documentation and the complexity of the claims themselves.

“Most of my clients who are getting paid are not getting the amount they requested,” Beasley Allen attorney Rhon Jones told the Associated Press (AP). Beasley Allen is currently representing more than a thousand individuals and businesses with claims or lawsuits against BP. “There is just lots and lots of frustration,” Jones added.

Meanwhile, the slow pace of court rulings makes it even harder on plaintiffs. According to the AP, “BP is skirmishing with plaintiffs’ lawyers over the timing of the release of evidence, preferring a slower pace that could force more people to make the tough decision about whether to accept a claim payment or pursue a lawsuit.”

“The longer they string this out,” Jones said, “the more people will be under financial duress and the more likely they will take a smaller number.”

According to federal officials, the claims being processed now are emergency payments. The Gulf Coast Claims Facility will start working on larger, final settlements, but not for another two months. Federal officials are working on the stipulations for the claims, which will be announced in another 4-5 weeks. Claimants will have up to three years to make a final claim for damages. But in making a final settlement, they will have to forfeit their right to sue BP for damages in the future.

Claimants may also be prohibited from seeking compensation from other potentially liable parties, such as Transocean and Halliburton. BP recently issued a report in which it accepted some of the blame the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the resulting spill, but it reserved plenty of blame for Transocean, the owner of the rig, and Halliburton, the company BP hired to cement the well.

Source: Associated Press 

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