Claims Pour In For Time, Money Lost To Gulf Oil Spill

President Obama demanded BP set aside billions of dollars to help Gulf Coast residents whose livelihoods have been hurt by the oil spill. But, filing claims and actually receiving money could be a very long process. Host Michel Martin speaks with Noah Hall, Assistant Professor at Wayne State University Law School, who specializes in environmental law. Martin also speaks with Gregory Button a Professor of Anthropology at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who has done extensive research on how disasters impact communities.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we'd like to talk more about this whole question of compensation for the oil spill. That is expected to be the focus of the president's meeting with BP executives today. In his speech last night, President Obama promised to hold BP accountable. Let's listen.

President BARACK OBAMA: The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years. But make no mistake, we will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long as it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever is necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy.

MARTIN: Now, BP officials announced this week that they have approved about 25,000 checks totaling $63 million to cover small and large claims and these officials said that they expect the total to rise to $85 million by the end of the week. But there still seems to be a lot of uncertainty over just who can file a claim and for what.

So we've called up two experts to talk about this. How are claims established? What lessons have we learned from previous disasters like this. And on the question of losing not just a livelihood, but a way of life, how do you get compensated for that?

So we've called Noah Hall, he's an assistant professor at Wayne State University Law School. He specializes in environmental law. Also with us is Gregory Button, he's a professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He's done extensive research on how disasters have affected communities after disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Hurricane Katrina. I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Professor NOAH HALL (Wayne State University Law School): Pleasure to be here.

Professor GREGORY BUTTON (Anthropology, University of Tennessee at Knoxville): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: We're just going to talk for just a few minutes. We're going to take a break and come right back to you. So do not fear. Professor Hall, let me start with you. The president said last night that BP will pay for the damage this bill has caused. And I have a simple question, does he really have the authority to assert that? I mean, I thought it was the courts that decided who pays for what and who's accountable for what.

Prof. HALL: Well, yes, the short answer is the president does have the authority to make BP pay. There are several environmental laws at the president's disposal. Laws like the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act, even the superfund law that allow the president or, more specifically, one of the federal agencies to assess damages to natural resources and require compensation to the states as trustees of those natural resources.

BP could always fight those charges in court. But as a starting point, yes, the president does have the legal authority and, in fact, the responsibility under those laws to make BP pay for the damage they've caused.

MARTIN: And the president has talked about setting up this fund. How does that work? And that there will be an independent party to administer the fund. What's the precedent for that and how does that work?

Prof. HALL: Well, how it works is a great question which, frankly, we don't really have a very good answer to right now. The president outlined the concept in his speech last night of a fund established and paid for by BP, but administered by an independent third party. The idea, I think, is that BP would put a huge sum of money, probably several billion dollars into escrow to pay for this fund. And the government would appoint a third party, an independent administrator to oversee the fund and issue payments to compensate the victims.

But there's not a lot of precedent for this type of approach and the president was, frankly, somewhat short on details for how exactly it would work and under what legal authority he was going to do this.

MARTIN: And Professor Button, let's just talk briefly before we have to take our break. We'll come right back to you. But on this question of a precedent, is there a precedent for the kind of damage, which is anticipated around this oil spill? For example, does Exxon Valdez even offer a guidepost to what we can expect?

Prof. BUTTON: Well, it does offer a guidepost, Michel. Unfortunately, the guidepost is not necessarily a very optimistic outlook in the sense that many cultures along the coast of Alaska were severely affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. And while money is an important factor in helping those communities recover, get back on their feet, return to normal and hopefully preserve their culture, money alone can't do that. And I think that's one of the things that many policymakers and legal experts don't understand that cultures, you know, themselves, can't just be bought or refurbished with money alone.

And to some degree, then, the problem is that once you have this kind of harm inflicted on these communities, it's very difficult for them to recover. Although, money does, of course, help aid them in their recovery process.

MARTIN: We only have about 30 seconds left before we have to take our break. But exactly that is a question that I want to ask when we come back, is how can you help people? Is there any precedent for actually preserving a culture after a disaster like this?

We're going to talk about that when we come back with anthropology professor Gregory Button and also law professor Noah Hall. We're talking about the Gulf oil spill, of course. We need to take a short break. We're talking about who can be compensated how and why.

That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

As the world's attention turns to Africa during World Cup, we'll get a reality check from a former diplomat who spent her career focused on the continent. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, more on the cultural and legal impact of the oil spill on the Gulf region.

Still with us, Noah Hall, an assistant professor at Wayne State University Law School. He specializes in environmental law. Also with us is Gregory Button, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He's done extensive research on how disasters affect communities including after the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Hurricane Katrina.

Professor Button, before the break, we were talking about how these disasters have affected communities in particular. And you've done a lot of research on just particularly how Native American communities have been affected. And you said that they often have a disproportionate impact. Why is that?

Prof. BUTTON: Well, we find that in the wake of any disaster, let alone an oil spill of this magnitude and severity, that there are certain social economic indicators that make people in communities more vulnerable than others in general. And generally, those indicators include ethnicity, race and gender. And it's proven generally to be the case that they often are, largely because of the kinds of social injustices and equities that exist prior to the disaster and that are often exacerbated in the wake of a disaster itself.

And part of that also includes the fact that we have a very robust literature that demonstrates that minorities, whether they be Latino, Native American, et cetera, often find a hard time qualifying for aid and assistance in the wake of disasters, as well as qualifying for home equity loans or loans, mortgages in order to help them recover their businesses or their way of life. There seems to be yet, unfortunately, a built-in kind of ethnic discrimination in our system for aiding people in those disasters.

MARTIN: Why is that? Is just the paper trail tends not to be as robust as with other groups or what? Why is that?

Prof. BUTTON: Well, there's a very complex answer. The short answer to that is oftentimes the outreach is not effective. Oftentimes, there are language difficulties. Sometimes there are difficulties in the fact that some of the places in which you can apply for aid are a considerable distance from some of these communities and they often lack the transportation or the means to go to those communities in order to apply for that aid. There are many reasons for this.

MARTIN: Professor Hall, is there a precedent for I want to ask you to sort of pick up on this question is there some precedent or any means, a vehicle by which people get compensated for their loss, not just of a job, but a way of life?

If you have, say, your whole, through the generations you've made your living fishing, or your culture is organized around fishing, you can be compensated for lost wages. But is there any precedent for compensation for a culture which is built up around a certain kind of activity in a certain place? Has that ever happened?

Prof. HALL: No, not really. The problem is that the legal system compartmentalizes damages. And what I mean by that is you could go to court and collect damages for your economic losses. You know, your lost revenue from your business, your lost wages. You could also go to court - and I expect the governments to do this - for damage to natural resources, impacts to the fishery, the coastline, the health of the oceans.

But there's no legal mechanism that ties those two things together. So that when you have a culture or a community of people that are dependent on a quality of environment and a quality of natural resources and that environment, those natural resources are destroyed in a disaster like this, there's no legal mechanism that ties it all together and recognizes the true value of the people's reliance on a healthy environment for preserving their way of life.

MARTIN: What would it look like if there were to be such a thing?

Prof. HALL: Well, it'd be very difficult to value. And frankly, as sympathetic as I am to the cultures that are being impacted along the Gulf, as well as I should note the dozens of cultures, many of which are indigenous around the world, that are devastated by oil drilling, not just in the United States but worldwide. And they have my deepest sympathy.

I'm not sure you want the legal system to protect that. Because one of the other things that we need to recognize is that there are some changes and choices made. We need to be far more honest about that, though.

What we're seeing right now with the Gulf oil spill is a disaster playing out that's essentially the result of a choice we've made as Americans to value oil over environmental protection. And, frankly, to protect our culture of oil use and oil dependence, cheap transportation and cheap energy over some of the more indigenous cultures that rely on environmental quality - folks that rely on fishing and harvesting oysters.

And so that choice was a policy decision and the legal system is not really well suited for reviewing or second guessing those kinds of policy decisions. I think that's a policy choice so that our political system should be revisiting in light of this disaster.

MARTIN: And final word from you, Professor Button, what about Professor Hall's point? Is there a framework by which that conversation could actually be had openly and honestly?

Prof. BUTTON: Yes, I think there are. There are at least two avenues. One would be the environmental justice discourse and certainly also human rights. And I respect the professor's comments, but I do disagree in the sense that I think that it's not only policy decisions that have marginalized people and discriminated against them before, after and during the disaster, but cultural and political decisions. And they fall outside of policy domains alone. So I think that there are other avenues we can pursue outside of formal policy and addressing this issue.

MARTIN: Well, if you had a chance to talk to the president about this, what would you say, Professor Button, very briefly, to your point?

Prof. BUTTON: I would say that you're looking at cultures along the Gulf Coast right now that are still reeling from the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina five years ago. And albeit they've been very resistant from time immemorial, they are now in a position where having this oil spill on top of the disaster five years ago, where they are very vulnerable. And they suffer a disproportionate risk.

And I think there are legal mechanisms within both policy and our legal system that recognize that there are people who do suffer disproportionate risk and they should, in some way, be compensated. And also, hopefully in the future, protected from suffering such disproportionate risk.

And I think certainly the environmental justice statutes and regulations that we have in place now are one of the mechanisms by which we could pursue something like that.

MARTIN: All right, Gregory Button is a professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee. He joined us from member station WUOT in Knoxville. Noah Hall specializes in environmental law. He's a professor at Wayne State University Law School, and he joined us from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much.

Prof. HALL: Thank you for having me.

Prof. BUTTON: Thank you.

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