NEW ORLEANS — BP’s oil spill settlement with private individuals and businesses hit a major milestone this week as the court-appointed claims administrator announced the final round of payments to those most directly affected by the 2010 disaster, fishermen and seafood businesses.
The third and last round of payments in the settlement’s $2.3 billion seafood compensation fund totals $520 million, and claims administrator Patrick Juneau said payment letters will go out next week. He says that will provide a major influx of money into the coastal economy for shrimpers, crabbers, oystermen and fin fishermen.
“This is a great thing for the gulf region, it’s a great thing for the seafood businesses,” Juneau said. “That’s the one that got hit hardest, in my opinion. We’ve pushed this thing through, we put all our efforts into getting this thing concluded and it’s truly a milestone to get that accomplished.”
Juneau, whom BP once accused of “hijacking” the settlement and barraged with personal attacks for the balance of two years, says this final step is a hard-earned result of BP and plaintiff’s lawyers turning over a new leaf and working together.
But a coalition of fishing leaders called GO Fish remains disappointed with the slow pace of claims payments. There was also a hiccup last December when hundreds of fishing claimants were identified as potential fraud cases, a mistake that scared people on Christmas Eve and wasn’t resolved for several months.
Clint Guidry, a leader of GO Fish and head of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association, says the constant delays and stumbles make the belated announcement of a final round of payments bittersweet.
“When you take into account that the process started with Ken Feinberg (in August 2010), and now Juneau’s been at this for four and a half years,” Guidry said. “This could have been done a lot quicker instead of paying folks in dribs and drabs. Because every day you don’t have all your money, you lose value.”
Guidry and others also bewail the fact that about 12,000 fishermen, around a third of the total compensated by BP, took $5,000 or $25,000 “quick payments” under the BP-authorized claims program run by Feinberg from mid-2010 to mid-2012.
Feinberg, who was paid by BP but selected at the behest of the Obama White House, has often said those were people who lacked proper documentation to get anything more. But those in the seafood industry, including Guidry, believe many of them were coerced into accepting far less than they deserved and, by signing releases to get payments when they were struggling, never got to participate in the more generous settlement program.
“We believe the representations that were made to them were untrue, that ‘you’ll never do better, this is as good as you’re going to get,’ they were basically told,” said Joel Waltzer, an attorney who represented GO Fish and many other fishing and coastal communities. “And for those 12,000 people, a good portion of whom got severely under-compensated, it’s just not fair.”
Waltzer is representing some of those people who took quick payments in a separate lawsuit, seeking to have them included in the settlement.
He also represents fishermen who have made subsistence loss claims, for the loss of the fish they would have lived on and shared with their neighbors. But from the start, even before the settlement, that group has been almost completely left out.
“I think the methodologies that they’re using are really short-changing the Louisiana subsistence economy,” Waltzer said.
On the other hand, Waltzer praised Juneau and BP and the plaintiffs for resolving some sticky issues and getting the seafood payments done.
“I think the court and the parties should be applauded for resolving the handful of remaining claims that had stood in the way of the last distribution” in the $2.3 billion seafood program, Waltzer said.
The fact that Juneau hopes to be enjoying retirement in his Lafayette home by this time next year stands in stark contrast with the private oil spill payments after the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill. That civil case affected 32,000 private claimants, far fewer than the 152,000 people and businesses eligible for BP payments, and it took 21 years to resolve.
The final seafood payments approved by Juneau will also push the total of BP’s payments under its 2012 settlement with private claimants past $9 billion. Juneau said he expects the whole settlement program to wrap up in the next 12 months, with the final tally of payments topping $10 billion.
That would far exceed the $7.8 billion price tag BP initially expected for the settlement program.
The largest group of unpaid claims to be handled in the last year are for business economic loss. Juneau said 70 percent of those claims have been paid so far, but some of the larger claims are yet to come.