At town hall, Ken Feinberg listens to leak victims
From Ernest Scheyder in LAROSE, La.:
At a civic center here, newly appointed oil fund administrator Ken Feinberg tried to put to rest concerns that the claims process is inefficient and learn more about the region’s unique economy.
“A program like this cannot be designed and administered from Washington,” he said. “You have to come down here and take time to listen.”
The claims process will transition from BP’s control to become the new “Gulf Coast-Feinberg” program within 20 days, and soon applicants will be able to file claims online after complaints by many affected by the leak that the process is often cumbersome, requiring stacks of paperwork and several visits to claims centers.
While Feinberg promised to make the process more efficient, he also implored victims to not give up.
“I can’t help you if you don’t file a claim,” he said. The first step, already underway, would provide victims with cash for urgent expenses, such as food, rent and utilities. Most boat deckhands, for instance, have been receiving $2,500 a month. Accepting this first phase of money does not prevent someone from suing BP, Feinberg said.
“This money is emergency money designed to tide you over until the leak stops and we can evaluate your long-term needs,” he said. Once the leak is capped, then the fund will meet with victims to determine permanent damage, much how the Sept. 11 Victims Fund operated, which Feinberg also administered.
That second phase will rely on estimating just how much business or income a person will lose over a period of several years, though if a spill victim takes the money from the second phase, they must agree not to sue BP.
“If you decide you want to litigate, go ahead,” Feinberg told the somber crowd. “Is it a good idea? Absolutely not. It’s a mistake to litigate. I believe what BP has done with this administration is the right way to go.”
As for those looking to make BP pay more and perhaps even disappear, Feinberg said that is not a good option.
“There is absolutely no sense at all driving BP into bankruptcy,” he said to strong applause in the Civic Center’s basketball court, which was lined with ads from local sponsors, including BP.
Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who hosted the event, called Feinberg a “very able man.”
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in him,” she said. “Ken Feinberg has $20 billion, and he’s looking to give it out.”
At the same time, she said she is still pressing President Barack Obama “to do everything we can to get deepwater drilling back.”
Local residents said they’re waiting to see results.
“I’m going to reserve judgment on Feinberg,” said Kim Chauvin, 42, who owns a commercial fishing dock in Chauvin, La. “We need to give him a chance. My hope is that the claims officers learn to understand the complexities of my business.”
Her business, the Mariah Jade Shrimp Co, has lost out on more than $3.2 million in revenue since the leak began, and she said she has yet to receive any money from the BP claims fund because BP officials don’t understand the complexities of her business.
Chauvin said that right now many BP claims workers have the perception that “a lot of people down here don’t pay taxes.” Many boat workers are paid in cash, often making the claims process more difficult for them. “Well that’s not the case,” she said. “I’ve been paying taxes since I was 16.”
During a question-and-answer session with BP, Sen. Landrieu and BP officials, Chauvin took issue with BP’s now-familiar refrain that the company wants to make its victims whole.
“Please stop telling us you’re going to make us whole,” she said as tears welled in her eyes. “There is nothing that can make this community whole again.”
Rickey Cheranie, a retired commercial fisherman, said he was impressed by Feinberg.
“I think the guy’s sincere,” said Cheranie, 57, of Golden Meadow, La. “There needs to be more communication between commercial fisherman and our politicians.”
Both the White House and BP have said Feinberg will be independent, though some here aren’t sure.
“I don’t think that’s 100 percent true, but I guess time will tell,” said Cheranie.
– Photo credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria (idle shrimp boats in Louisiana); Reuters/Lee Celano (oil comes ashore in Alabama)