Shirking responsibility in the Gulf

New York Times

Stephen Teague
BILOXI, Miss. — IF you don’t live near the Gulf Coast, you may have the impression that the area has fully recovered from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the largest environmental disaster in American history. Sadly, that’s not the case for tens of thousands of gulf residents still trying to put their lives back together. That is, however, what BP wants the public to believe — which is why it is now engaged in an aggressive legal and public-relations campaign to limit how much it pays individuals and businesses for the losses its reckless behavior caused. After having a hand in this huge disaster, the company wants to leave these communities to rebuild on their own, even as it takes in record profits.

The spill resulted in the release of more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and the deaths of 11 people. In September 2011 a federal investigation found BP responsible for the leak, and in November 2012 the Department of Justice reached a court settlement with the company that included a $4.5 billion fine. In 2010 the company set up a $20 billion fund to settle claims arising from the disaster, and since then it has made payments to hundreds of thousands of individuals and businesses affected by the spill. In 2012 a federal court took over supervision of the fund.

But tens of thousands of gulf residents still haven’t been fully compensated for their losses, and many are struggling to make ends meet. Many low-wage workers in the fishing and service industries, for example, have been seeking compensation for lost wages and jobs for three years. In many cases, their claims aren’t successful because they can’t afford the legal help required to navigate the complex claims process.

Their troubles stem in part from BP’s increasingly brazen attempts to stonewall payouts. Most recently, the company made a motion in court to freeze payments on tens of thousands of legitimate claims, arguing that a staff attorney from the Deepwater Horizon Court-Supervised Settlement Program, the program responsible for evaluating compensation claims, had improperly profited from claims filed by a New Orleans law firm. The attorney is said to have received portions of settlement claims for clients he referred to the firm.

But the alleged bad behavior of one attorney does not justify freezing the payment of all claims, as BP has demanded, especially when the firm handled a small fraction of the claims that have been submitted for compensation. In any case, the attorney has resigned, and Carl J. Barbier, the federal judge who is overseeing the settlement, ordered an investigation, which is continuing. So far the judge has refused to freeze payments while the investigation is under way, a ruling that the company is appealing.

Of course, this isn’t really about the possible extent of the damage done by the attorney. BP is using the case to cast doubt, both in public and in the courts, on the entire process. And it’s working: its talking points have been echoed in mainstream media coverage, which has so far featured few voices of actual oil-spill victims.

Such guilt by association ignores the robust measures built into the settlement program to ensure a fair compensation system. The fraud-detection mechanisms are so extensive that the processing of claims is slowed down to accommodate them.

Meanwhile, the company has fought aggressively to undermine individual claims. In some instances, BP has tried to deny payment of claims that its own settlement program had already deemed legitimate.

The company’s efforts know no bounds and have pushed the claimants and their legal representatives to the limit. My organization, the Mississippi Center for Justice, is one of several groups providing pro bono legal assistance. Since 2011, we have helped approximately 10,000 people navigate the difficult claims process and obtain money they are owed by BP.

We have seen firsthand the extent to which BP will go to avoid paying even patently legitimate claims. One claimant with whom we worked, whose employer closed its doors in the wake of the spill, finally received an offer for compensation after two years. Then BP appealed the award, seeking to have it revoked. After he received assistance in countering BP’s appeal, the company finally admitted that he was, in fact, owed money and withdrew its appeal of his claim.

But while we can carry on the battle through lawsuits and in the affected communities, we are outgunned in the court of public opinion. In countless high-priced TV spots and full-page newspaper ads, the company is selling the story that it is committed to helping victims of the oil spill and rebuilding the gulf.

We know different. The company has turned its back on the people whose lives it derailed. BP must end its stall tactics and keep its promises to the people of the gulf.

Stephen Teague is a staff attorney at the Mississippi Center for Justice.