Under the administration of Kenneth Feinberg, BP's $20 billion Gulf Coast claims fund has been up and running for about a month. After a rocky start, there have been some promising developments with the fund, but significant questions remain unanswered and BP continues to point fingers to avoid accountability for the worst environmental disaster in our nation's history.
We remain hopeful that the fund will be an effective way to quickly compensate those with straightforward claims. But it's important to remember that BP is not showing magnanimity by participating in this compensation program - fund or no fund, they are legally obligated to pay for damages caused by their explosion and spill.
Still, the oil giant recently released a report accepting very little blame for the disaster, then asked a New Orleans court to order all claimants to submit their claim though the fund prior to filing a lawsuit. Simply put, BP is using this tactic to stonewall Gulf Coast residents, hoping these claimants will simply give up and accept whatever settlement the fund offers - even if it's not fully adequate.
The fund was supposed to be an adjunct to the civil justice system. But if BP has its way, it will be an obstacle to prevent people from fully holding all corporate wrongdoers accountable for their damages.
While the protocols for this fund are constantly evolving, many Gulf Coast residents and small businesses have rightly questioned whether it's helping BP more than them. For instance, fund administrator Feinberg originally said only businesses located close to the Gulf would have eligible claims. Fortunately, just this week he changed his tune, saying all claims will be considered, regardless of proximity. With so many residents and businesses dependent on the Gulf waters for their livelihood, never have we believed economic damages in the region could be limited to those just a few short miles from the shore.
Additionally, reports have indicated that claimants seeking final payments will be asked to waive their rights to sue BP and all the other corporations involved in the disaster. Requiring residents to sign their rights away before the full extent of the damage is realized would amount to a "BP bailout" - essentially letting a cadre of very profitable, bad actors off the hook prematurely. To force Gulf Coast residents and businesses to grant all corporations involved in the spill blanket immunity in exchange for a potentially insufficient settlement is a terrible proposition.
While Mr. Feinberg is working on behalf of BP, the fund can't allow them to skirt full accountability for the disaster it caused. If the fund does not treat all residents and businesses fairly, there will be no incentive to use it. Forcing these claimants to sign away their rights or accept final payments before the damage is fully realized is not the way to receive broad participation and allow people along the Gulf Coast to quickly rebuild their lives and start anew.