The Gulf is Still Struggling, But BP’s Done Paying

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Sea foam and eroding oil is seen amongst dead mangrove trees at Barataria Bay at Cat Island in Plaquemines Parish, La. This formerly dense, green nesting site for brown pelicans, egrets and roseate spoonbill was directly affected by oil from the nation's worst offshore oil spill. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Three and a half years after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig dumped 205 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean, leaving 11 workers dead and damaging hundreds of miles of shoreline, the Gulf Coast is still recovering. And BP, the oil company behind the spill, is no longer willing to foot the bill for the cleanup or to compensate those whose lives were affected.

The company has spent or earmarked $42.4 billion so far for cleanup, compensation payments and environmental fines. Its profits have suffered, and it has sold $38 billion in assets to help cover the cost. For a while, the company made a show of doing its part regardless of the price tag. But now, its chief executive has decided its time to change tack.

A tougher strategy

“As we continue to fight what I think are absurd outcomes, we want everyone to know that we are digging in and are well-prepared for the long haul on legal matters,” BP’s head, Bob Dudley, told reporters.

BP filed suit last week against the U.S. government for a ban on awarding the company federal contracts. The ban was put in place by the EPA last November; the agency cited the company’s “lack of business integrity,” and said the suspension would not be lifted “until the company can provide sufficient evidence… that it meets federal business standards.” BP already has $1.34 billion in contracts in place to supply fuel to the government, including the military, but is not allowed to pursue any new contracts. The suspension, BP said in the suit, would do the company “irreparable harm.” It notes that they did business with the government for two and a half years after the disaster, and claims regulators expressed confidence in their safety.

BP’s resistance became official last month, when Dudley, an American, announced the company’s plan to step up its defense. But Reuters tracks its increasingly aggressive legal strategy back six months.

In February it gave up hope of settling the civil charges that could add tens of billions more to its bill, and a trial began in New Orleans under judge Carl Barbier. The second phase of that trial is due to start on Sept 30 with federal charges brought under the Clean Water Act and damage claims sought by Gulf Coast states at stake.

Then in March as its bill began to overshoot estimated costs, BP began to contest the way payouts were being made under the PSC settlement – saying too many undeserving claims were getting through, calling some of them “fictitious” and “absurd.”

It failed to convince Barbier. Participants await the outcome of a one-day appeal hearing on July 8 at the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal, also in New Orleans.

BP has also balked at paying claims administrator Patrick Juneau’s costs, has expressed concern at the amount of money being made by lawyers, and launched its own “fraud hotline” after allegations of misconduct in the payout process.

“They’re attacking our entire judicial system. They’re attacking the judge. They’re attacking the claims administrator they helped appoint. They’re attacking the lawyers for representing people. Now they’ve filed an attack on the U.S. government demanding that they do business with them,” Joe Rice, a lawyer who negotiated a settlement with BP last year on behalf of over 100,000 people affected by the spill, told Reuters. “In our view, BP views us as a colony that they own and can exploit. It’s outrageous.”

The Gulf is still struggling

Meanwhile, the effects of the spill linger.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Coast Guard reported that the shorelines of Florida, Mississippi and Alabama were finished being cleaned up, but that Louisiana still needs work. As the Coast Guard winds down their efforts, the environmental recovery will increasingly rely on those living along the coast to submit tips about environmental issues stemming from the spill. The next phase “depends on the public to be our eyes,” Chief Petty Officer Pat Howell, Louisiana branch director for the Coast Guard’s Gulf Coast Incident Management Team, told The Christian Science Monitor.

Instead of an active and ongoing search, the Coast Guard will dispatch crews only if they receive a tip on their hotline of an oil sighting and only if a forensics investigation proves the oil can be traced back to the Deepwater Horizon. If that is the case, BP, the oil giant largely responsible for the disaster, will pay the bill.

But many in Louisiana feel that their state — which was disproportionately affected by the 111 days of spillage — did not get adequate attention over the last three and a half years of cleanup, and fear that will continue in this new phase of the recovery. Garret Graves, chair of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana (CPRA), a state agency leading hurricane protection and ecosystem restoration, blames BP.

“It has been fascinating and frustrating to experience a private company dictating federal agency actions – a modern day case of Stockholm Syndrome. We have seen nothing [to indicate] that anyone other than BP is supervising their cleanup contractors,” Graves told the Monitor. “The response should end when conditions on the ground dictate such actions. We’re not anywhere close right now.”

New studies find higher levels of oil spill-related contamination than government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have detected, bringing into question that agency’s decision to reopen fisheries after the spill. And a report released by the National Wildlife Federation in April, three years after the spill, looked at how key species were faring in the Gulf. Dolphin, sea turtle, tuna and coral populations were badly damaged, and the report suggested that reproduction across species had been severely negatively affected.

Fisherman have noticed, and say the spill continues to threaten their livelihoods. Louisiana fisherman David Arnesen told the Gulf Coast citizen journalism project Bridge the Gulf that fishing stock is way down, and that fish aren’t reproducing — instead, they’re holding onto their eggs.

“I don’t want BP’s check, I’m not a charity case,” Arnesen said. “But they destroyed my industry. What’d they offer me? One check — ok, that fixed last year. What about this year, next year, ten years? That’s the problem.”

“I’d like to die an old man still being a fisherman. My dad passed at age 93 and he’d been fishing his whole life. Before BP, I thought I’d follow in the same footsteps.”

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