BOOTHEVILLE, La. — A settlement that BP is hammering out with victims of the massive Gulf oil spill finally provides a system for monitoring health concerns and compensating people whose illnesses are found to have a link to the disaster.
Government and university doctors studying locals' health haven't found significant evidence of spill-related illnesses, but problems years from now remain a question mark. Gulf Coast residents say they're happy their complaints are getting a serious look, even if they'll face hurdles in proving that rashes, shortness of breath and other maladies were caused by the oil or chemical dispersants sprayed to break it up.
Under the settlement announced Friday, BP said it expects to pay out $7.8 billion to settle a wide range of claims that also include property damage, lost wages and loss to businesses. While a previously created fund had already been paying such economic loss claims, it hadn't paid claims over illnesses related to exposure.
Nicole Maurer, a resident of this fishing community, said she feels optimistic about getting medical bills paid under the court-supervised process. She blames the spill for a number of her family's health problems.
"Bright and early, I'm getting my kids on the school bus and calling my lawyer tomorrow, and see what's going on," she said Sunday. "I'm being very hopeful and that it all works out in our favor."
First, Maurer and others like her will have to show that they got sick from the spill. To receive compensation, claimants will be examined by a court-approved health care practitioner. Then, a claims administrator working under the supervision of a federal judge will determine who should be paid.
"The workers have a different kind of exposure because they were there all the time, but anybody living in an area where they were at risk of exposure will be eligible to participate in the program," said Ervin Gonzalez, one the plaintiff lawyers leading the litigation.
The settlement also establishes a program to monitor claimants' health for a period of 21 years. People whose physical symptoms haven't yet developed will also be able to pursue claims. BP has also promised to pay $105 million to improve health care around the Gulf region.
"You don't know what the long-term (health) effects will be," said another of the plaintiffs' lawyers, Steve Herman. "You don't know how the science is going to play out."
Herman said medical claims won't be paid until U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier gives final approval to the overall settlement, which could take months.
Observers said the legal wrangling over who will be eligible for medical compensation likely will be contentious and could take years to play out.
Blaine LeCesne, a tort law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, said getting medical claims covered under the proposed settlement was a victory for the plaintiffs.
At a trial, he said it would have been difficult to prove medical damage. "Medical claims are inherently speculative. We really don't know what the full scope of the medical problems are to exposure to the dispersants and the oil itself."
How much BP will be forced to pay will depend on how broad the criteria for verifying health problems are, he said.
Mitch Crusto, a Loyola business and environmental law professor, said it was a smart move for BP. "It helps give the impression that BP is a responsible company."
He added that Barbier will be more likely to approve the settlement offer because of the medical provision. "Barbier would be less inclined to accept settlement if there was not some process to handle medical claims."
The process is a step in the right direction for residents who felt their health concerns had been ignored. The previous compensation fund, called the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, received roughly 200 claims asserting spill-related illnesses, but none were paid. The older fund did cover injured rig workers on the Deepwater Horizon, the drilling rig that exploded on April 20, 2010.
Since shortly after the spill, government and university researchers have been investigating public health complaints, but so far haven't found significant evidence of illnesses caused by the spill. Still, some caution that their work has only begun.
For example, studies by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Health Sciences are in their early stages, according to a researcher involved.
"We are trying to pinpoint exposure and unravel those complex questions," said Maureen Litchveld, a lead researcher at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. "Two of the most persistent concerns are those about seafood safety and if the air is safe to breathe."
Some doctors along the coast say they routinely treat cleanup workers and residents for chemical exposure and other problems that they blame on the spill. Dr. Mike Robichaux, a nose and throat specialist in Raceland, La., said he has treated 50 people for a range of health problems that he believes were caused by exposure to chemicals released during the disaster.
"The illnesses are very real, and the people who are ill are apparently people who have sensitivities to these substances that not all of us are sensitive to," he said.
BP employed thousands of fishermen and other locals to respond to the oil spill, and scores have expressed health concerns. Many of those people can be found along the sliver of land south of New Orleans in the fishing and oilfield communities of Plaquemines Parish.
Glen Swift, a fisherman in Buras, said he worked cleanup boats and got sick one day cleaning up a big patch of oil.
"I got nauseated, just real weak and sick with diarrhea for a few days," he said.
Swift said he wasn't sure if he would file a medical claim.
More serious were the complaints of the Maurer household in Bootheville. Maurer said she'd developed cysts on her body since the spill, while her fisherman husband has suffered bleeding from his ear and nose since he did cleanup work. They also believe their daughter's asthma has gotten worse.
"I'm so tired of being sick," she said.
Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans contributed to this report.