Gulf oil spill victims weary of wait for payouts
By Rick Jervis
NEW ORLEANS — Robert Campo once believed the TV commercials by oil giant BP that promised to “make it right” and compensate those along the Gulf Coast who lost work during last year’s disastrous oil spill.
More than a year after the spill ruined his oyster beds, however, Campo is still waiting for what he believes is full payment. The $20 billion fund created by BP to compensate those ruined by the spill has offered him less than one-third of what he requested. He’s still waiting to hear why.
“I’m not looking for a handout. I’m just looking for them to make right what they did wrong,” says Campo, an oyster fisherman from St. Bernard Parish, La. “It’s taken way too long.”
Campo joins a chorus of local fishermen, seafood processors, hoteliers and others who say that nearly a year since it opened its doors, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility that administers the BP fund has not moved fast enough to pay those hurt most by the spill. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered an independent audit of the fund. Kenneth Feinberg, the fund’s administrator, has agreed to the audit, scheduled for sometime this year.
The Gulf Coast Claims Facility has paid nearly $5 billion in claims to about 200,000 claimants, one of the largest payout efforts in U.S. history, according to the facility.
The compensation fund for victims of last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill has paid out less than 25% of the money available:
Total amount of fund: $20 billion
Total amount paid: $4.8 billion
Source: Gulf Coast Claims Facility
The fund was started in the wake of the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig in April 2010, which killed 11 workers and unleashed more than 170 million gallons of crude into the Gulf. BP leased the rig and assumed most of the responsibility for its aftermath.
Local officials and some claimants say the facility has improved in recent months after earlier complaints of taking too long to process claims and not clearly explaining why some were rejected. Customer service at the facility’s Gulf Coast offices, for example, has improved and claimants are at least getting answers on the status of their claims, says Tony Kennon, mayor of Orange Beach, Ala., an early critic of Feinberg and the fund.
“Some aspects of the program have gotten better,” Kennon says. “We still don’t feel like we’re where we should be, but I do appreciate (Feinberg) moving in our direction.”
Critics of the facility say the process still appears bogged down and random: Some boat deckhands are getting paid full compensation while business owners with full documentation are receiving only a percentage of their losses.
George Barisich, a Louisiana shrimper and president of the United Commercial Fisherman’s Alliance, says he has produced tax documents and other receipts showing he lost $200,000 last year. The facility offered him $25,000.
Every week, facility workers ask him for more documentation, Barisich says. “It’s a game,” he says. “The game is: Starve these poor (fishermen) out until they’re ready to take whatever’s offered.”
The bays he shrimps in still delivers fat nets full of brown shrimp. But dock prices have dropped since the spill because of public unease about the safety of Gulf seafood, he says.
Camp says he has filed documents with the fund showing he harvested $309,000 worth of oysters in 2008 and $252,000 in 2009. The BP fund’s offer for last year’s losses: $41,400. One of his deckhands received $75,000, while another was paid $49,000 — both more than his payout even though he owns the boats.
“It’s a joke,” says Campo, a third-generation oysterman. “You have this big question mark hanging over your head. You don’t know what’s going to happen to this industry.”
Feinberg says he tweaked the process after fielding repeated complaints from locals, including adding 700 workers to speed up the process. The fund also is allowing oyster harvesters to get a bigger payment, because the future of some oyster beds is in question, he says. He says he welcomes an independent audit as long as it doesn’t slow the process.
“It’s not perfect. People will complain,” Feinberg says. “But I think the program has worked as intended.”
But it’s still not fast enough or transparent enough, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood says. Hood filed a federal lawsuit earlier this month, asking a judge to allow his office to sift through Feinberg’s files.
“To keep dragging them out is just frustrating,” Hood says. “There has to be a third-party set of eyes to look over this process at some point.”
Feinberg says his workers must carefully review documents to spot fraudulent or invalid claims.
His workers have received nearly 1 million claims from all 50 states and Canada and Mexico, ranging from veterinarians to chiropractors to Las Vegas restaurants, all purporting damage from the spill, he says. One business asked for $20 billion — the entire amount of the fund.
Given the challenges, Feinberg says he’s happy with the pace of payouts. Most of the fund could be spent by the time his contract with BP expires in August 2013, he says.