BP Settlement Lacks Enthusiasm Along Gulf Coast

Residents of the Gulf Coast are warily evaluating the BP settlement deal in the Deepwater Horizon case. Some were hurt during clean-up of the oil spill, others lost their businesses and still others lost family in the rig explosion. But they are coming to different conclusions about whether the deal is a good one.

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Amid the nation's worst oil disaster, BP officials made a promise to people on the Gulf Coast, quote, "we're going to make you whole." Almost two years later, the oil giant has agreed to pay $7.8 billion, settling lawsuits by oil spill victims. But people along the Gulf Coast are not so enthused. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Shrimpers in South Louisiana are gearing up for the spring season: mending nets, painting hulls and brushing up on offshore safety.

KIM CHAUVIN: It's coming out the top.

DAVID CHAUVIN: Oh Lord, give me a round plug.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELLIOTT: This leaky boat drill is part of a safety class Kim Chauvin leads on the dock behind her house in Chauvin, Louisiana.

CHAUVIN: All right, if you had a leak that's brought on this bad, what would be your first thing to do?

ELLIOTT: Chauvin and her husband David run the Mariah Jade Shrimp Company with their children, the fifth generation of Chauvins to make their living in the Gulf of Mexico. Kim Chauvin became a safety expert by default when oil started gushing into the Gulf and they turned a fleet of 25 shrimp trawlers into oil skimmers for BP. NPR has been following their story as part of our Disappearing Coast series. Chauvin says the disaster is far from over.

CHAUVIN: We were told, at the very beginning, the commercial fishing industry will be taken care of the very first thing. We're two years later. Where the hell are ya?

ELLIOTT: The Chauvins lost 99 percent of their customers due to the BP spill, and have yet to be fully compensated for their economic losses, or for the use and repair of boats used in the cleanup. She's submitted financial records more than 13 times - at first to BP, then the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.

Now, she's skeptical as the process moves to a new claim structure set up by the federal court as part of a massive settlement negotiated by a team of plaintiffs lawyers.

CHAUVIN: Those lawyers have never been on the back deck of a boat. How are you going to understand what my story is if you've never even talked to me? Because you looked at my paperwork? Are you kidding me? You don't know that I put all my money back into my business. You don't understand what my growth rate is. You don't understand what my future plans are.

ELLIOTT: The deal sets aside at least $2.3 billion for commercial fisheries, but Chauvin and the fishermen in her safety class say they've had no voice in the negotiations. Dulac shrimper Toby Dufrene says the settlement doesn't address his biggest worry.

TOBY DUFRENE: I don't think they're going to fix our fisheries they've got messed up. There are many places out there that there ain't no shrimp. You can drag for days and days and maybe catch two or three. And they're not going to fix that.

ELLIOTT: They are unsure when, or if, the oil will be completely gone. Kim Chauvin says a way of life is in the balance.

CHAUVIN: I don't know that there's any justice in this whole thing for the people along the Gulf Coast. I really don't.

ELLIOTT: Justice isn't necessarily the goal of the deal, says Keith Jones, one of the lawyers who worked on the settlement. Jones has a unique perspective in that his son Gordon was one of the rig workers killed when BP's well blew out.

KEITH JONES: Well, there is no justice for Gordon. There's no justice for any of those 11 men who were killed. No amount of money can make it right. Nothing in the world is ever going to bring Gordon back, and that would be the only way to make things right.

ELLIOTT: Jones says the settlement can get oil spill victims paid for what they lost and paid well, he says. But it won't undo the harm that was done.

JONES: We can't make pain go away. We can't make disability go away. We can't make lost loved ones come back. But we can make it right financially. We can make their bank accounts look the way they should look, and then some. And that's what I believe the settlement's going to do.

ELLIOTT: Jones says despite BP's estimate that the settlement will cost $7.8 billion, there is no cap and no time limit on the ability to recover. In additional to economic losses, the proposed deal also provides for medical claims from people who say they became ill from exposure to oil and the chemical dispersants used in the cleanup.

Commercial fisherman Malcom Coco fits that category. He captained an igniter boat, setting fire to oil in the Gulf with milk jugs of gasoline lit by a flare.

MALACOM COCO: You drive up to the back of the fire and just lay it in like you were shooting fireworks, and back up, and within sometimes two seconds, it was the biggest blaze you've ever seen in your life ever.

ELLIOTT: Soon after, he started having health problems.

COCO: I had - I thought was a kidney reaction, and then nausea and headaches. And there was really no one to talk to about it, because there was seemingly no one in charge.

ELLIOTT: So he hired an attorney and sued. Coco says he's still sick and wonders what the long-term effects will be.

COCO: Am I going to get cancer 10 years from now? I don't know. BP will be onto another well by then.

ELLIOTT: Coco is unsure whether he'll join in the settlement, or opt out and pursue his lawsuit. His attorney, Daniel Becnel, Jr. wants more details.

DANIEL BECNEL, JR.: If Mr. Coco asks me what is in the settlement for me, I can't answer a question with any degree of certainty that would allow you to be able to advise this client. I might be in favor of this settlement. I might be against this settlement. I don't have any information.

ELLIOTT: Lawyers for BP and what's known as the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee are expected to submit a final settlement plan to a New Orleans federal judge for approval by April 16th. BP CEO Bob Dudley has said the settlement reflects the company's commitment, not only to the Gulf region, but to the United States as a whole.

Even if this settlement is approved, that's not the end of the BP litigation. The question of what BP should pay for polluting the Gulf is still unresolved.

AARON VILES: The people need to be made whole, but the ecosystem needs to be made whole, as well.

ELLIOTT: Aaron Viles is with the Gulf Restoration Network. He says billions more are at stake as the federal and state governments pursue environmental cases against BP.

VILES: BP is legally on the hook to basically put the ecosystem back to where it was on April 19th, 2010. You know, that is, unfortunately, you know, not nearly adequate for the ecosystem, because it wasn't in a good state of health on April 19th. It was in a state of crisis.

ELLIOTT: A state of crisis, he says, created in part by shipping and oil and gas activity that benefits the entire nation. Legislation pending in Congress would return 80 percent of BP's clean water fines back to the region. Viles says that kind of money could provide an historic opportunity to restore the Gulf Coast.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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