Teague: BP needs to honor its compensation agreement

Houston Chronicle
Stephen Teague
Over the past year, BP has made several challenges to the court-approved settlement program established to compensate those who suffered medical injuries and economic losses as a result of the April 2010, BP oil disaster. BP’s recent appeal to the court seeks to delay or stop payments altogether to individuals and businesses who have been seeking compensation for their injuries for more than three years. In the time since the spill, these injuries have disrupted peoples’ lives. Further delays in payments will cause an intolerable hardship for many along the Gulf Coast – a hardship caused by an oil disaster for which these people share no fault.

Each day I come in to work at the Mississippi Center for Justice, I am confronted with the human and financial harms of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Over the past two and a half years, I have seen firsthand the physical and economic damages from the catastrophic explosion that killed 11 people and discharged more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. This disaster has been especially devastating for households and businesses that have not yet fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina.

More than 10,000 people have navigated the claims processes set up after the oil disaster with free legal help from the Gulf Justice Consortium. The consortium is a network of civil legal aid providers from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. It provides free legal assistance to low- and moderate-income communities still trying to recover from the disaster. The consortium has helped a range of people from low-wage deckhands to employees and owners of small businesses who would have otherwise abandoned the frustrating, arduous and time-consuming claims process.

The consortium does not charge claimants because its service is provided under contract with a court-appointed settlement administrator as part of the overall cost borne by BP. The U.S. Department of Justice and the American Bar Association have endorsed the value of free civil legal aid in situations such as this, and I have seen on the faces of my clients how important our support was to them. One example of the effectiveness of this support is a Mississippi seafood processor who originally was offered less than $500 for his losses, but eventually recovered more than $30,000 after receiving our assistance.

But for every person with a success story, there are thousands more Gulf Coast workers who have waited three years to obtain fair compensation for the losses caused by BP.

These workers and small businesses lack the luxury of a financial cushion, and so BP’s recent demand for a freeze on payment of all claims will push even more of them over the economic cliff.

Disturbingly, BP is now asserting in court that payments to all claimants should be frozen indefinitely in light of its allegations that some claims have been tainted by misconduct by employees of the claims administration. But a federal judge recently ruled that the allegations are no reason to halt all claims.

Of course, for people with legitimate and often modest claims – including our clients – an indefinite freeze on payments altogether could be disastrous. Already, Gulf Coast residents have lost their livelihoods, closed their businesses and faced stiffer headwinds as the region recovers from hurricane and recession woes. A Mississippi Coast commercial fisherman who we represent still has not regained his footing since the closure of Gulf waters after the disaster and the resulting stigma toward Gulf seafood in the immediate aftermath. He now struggles to stay afloat in the trade that has been his livelihood for 30 years.

Recently, BP has argued that the court and the settlement administrator are costing BP too much money due to their interpretation of the settlement agreement. No doubt vast amounts of time and money will continue to be spent haggling further over the implementation of this agreement.

Our clients’ faces tell us that further delay will be unbearable to them. They don’t have the ability to support their businesses, their families, or even themselves. We urge BP to return to the commitment it originally made to this region and to the nation to “make it right.”

Teague is a staff attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice.