Claimants Starving to Death
For BP Oil Spill Claimants in Gulf, Needs Haven’t Been Met
Ken Feinberg, Gulf Oil Spill Pay Czar, Under Fire For Slow Claims Process
By MATT GUTMAN and JENNIFER METZ
When the money ran out, shrimper Darla Rooks gave up her apartment and moved in with her daughter. One of an unprecedented half a million BP claimants, the Louisiana shrimper and oyster harvester has spent her life on Gulf waters — she even got married in her fishing boots. Now she’s swimming in red tape.
“We’re starving to death,” she said from her daughter’s home in Mississippi, which she and her husband were renovating – adding a room for themselves. “We’re having to move in with our families and rely on our families, it’s humiliating, my daughter just got married, six months back… ” she said. “We count on our living to supply us with what we need. We know no other way.”
So far, the $20 billion Deepwater Horizon disaster compensation fund, headed by Washington attorney Kenneth Feinberg, has paid about $3.6 billion to 170,000 claimants, the vast majority of which have been emergency payments of a few thousand dollars. But claimants, from shrimpers in Louisiana to hotel owners in Florida, complain the compensation process has been too slow and that their needs have gone unmet.
And what Feinberg’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility has offered is a pittance compared with what many feel they deserve. Of the 8,200 claimants that have been offered final compensation, only 2.5 percent have accepted it.
For those like Rooks, filing for a claim means miles of overwhelming paperwork. “It will never get done,” she said. “I can never give them what they want. This can go on for 20 years. What they just gave me … I’m owed more than that.”
Victims Say Claims Process Isn’t Moving Fast Enough
A fisherwoman from Myrtle Grove, La., Rooks owns a boat named the Cajun Queen. She’s one of several BP oil spill victims ABC News has followed after the Macondo well exploded last year. She received three emergency checks — two for $5,000 and another $12,500 for in September, when our team met her the second time. She couldn’t cash the larger check because it wasn’t made out exactly in her name. Rooks had her check reissued, and received it two weeks ago — five months late.
Feinberg says she got nearly all she deserves — her taxes show an income of less than $25,000 for 2009.
Feinberg, who was appointed by President Obama as an independent third party to oversee the fund, insisted in an interview with ABC News that “overall, the program is working,” given its colossal size. No one at the Gulf Coast Claims Facility could have anticipated 500,000 claims, he said.
“I do agree that the program has not been as effective as it should be at the local level in giving all claimants a comfort level that they’re being treated fairly, that they can talk with somebody at the local level, that they’ll have their concerns answered promptly,” Feinberg said. “We’re taking steps to deal with that as we speak.”
While 400,000 claims have not received final payment, there has been a single final settlement for a business: a $10 million check to a BP associate. “This was simply a request of BP and the claimant to pay out of the GCCF settlement — that’s what we did,” Feinberg said, adding there was no review of that particular request.
The Justice Department said Feinberg’s payment process has been too slow. On the right and the left, politicians have called it erratic and broken. Now, Feinberg is even being sued by a claimant for reckless negligence.
BP is paying Feinberg’s firm $850,000 a month to administer the fund, and now he’s renegotiating the contract — upwards.
Feinberg Says Claims Process Is Working
“I think that it is money well spent,” Feinberg said. “I think we can do a better job, but overall, I think it’s working, and it’s working well.”
Earlier this month, a Louisiana judge ruled that because he’s on BP’s payroll, Feinberg must stop telling claimants he’s independent. Feinberg said he’s doing his job — getting BP’s money out the door. But for folks like Darla Rooks, whose livelihoods were devastated by the BP oil spill, it’s not enough.
She wanted her grandson to take over the family business — a dream dashed by that exploding oil well. “There’s no future for him, no future for me, no future for anybody. And as long as BP and Ken Feinberg doesn’t do what they’re supposed to do, there’s gonna be no future for southeast Louisiana,” she said.