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An update now on the BP oil spill claims process. Last summer, BP agreed to a massive court settlement that let the oil company avoid thousands of potential lawsuits after the 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But that settlement also opened BP's wallet to more people. Well, now BP is fighting back. It's in court to get the settlement overturned, arguing the process is corrupt.
From member station WWNO in New Orleans, Eve Troeh reports.
EVE TROEH, BYLINE: Just after the spill, when oil was still gushing into the gulf, BP touted the $20 billion it set aside for claims. Now, it wants to stop all the money flowing from its claims fund. That would mean stopping a well-oiled machine.
SHANDY GARR: We are going to go into the facility...
TROEH: The Deepwater Horizon Claims Center is a warehouse about 50 miles from New Orleans. Hundreds of workers process economic and property claims against BP, 8:30 A.M. to 10 P.M. The first step, pick up the mail three times a day.
GARR: We do the pickup ourselves so that we take complete ownership, from the very beginning of it being taken from the Post Office to it coming to this location.
TROEH: Shandy Garr is a vice president of Garden City Group, the company BP pays to run the claims center. I ask how much mail comes in.
GARR: You know, in the beginning I will have to say maybe 100,000 we could get.
TROEH: A day?
GARR: A day, but now you get a couple of thousand.
TROEH: Workers click away processing all that mail. Behind them, pictures of a company picnic fill the wall with construction paper Valentine's about Louisiana hospitality.
BP is not praising the good people of the Gulf Coast. It's set up a new hotline.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If you would like to report about fraud on a Deepwater claim, please press one...
TROEH: Billboards advertise the number along the highway, the word fraud as tall as a person. BP has also taken full-page ads in The New York Times, shaming claimants and their lawyers for what it calls outrageous windfalls. U.S. attorneys have prosecuted several fraud cases - people who pretended to lose jobs they never had, or businesses they didn't own, but it's tiny compared to the hundreds of thousands of claims.
In response to questions about fraud, BP declined to be interviewed but released a statement. Quote, "we are defending our rights, shining a light on abuses, and keeping people informed."
New Orleans lawyer Melvin Albritton sees it differently.
MELVIN ALBRITTON: I would call it a smear campaign.
TROEH: He draws a thick black line around vast areas of Florida and Texas, and the entire states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Anyone there who lost money after the four million barrel spill is eligible.
ALBRITTON: I've heard a lot of commentary, people reminding us that Huntsville is a really long way away from the Gulf of Mexico. And while I appreciate that geography lesson, it's one they should have given to BP's attorneys before they recommended this settlement.
TROEH: Albritton says BP didn't count on so many people filing. Now it wants to scare them off before next April's deadline.
ALBRITTON: Folks who were kind of on the fence about it, after seeing the campaign, hearing the news media, they've changed their mind.
TROEH: The administrator of the BP settlement is 75-year-old Lafayette, Louisiana lawyer Patrick Juneau. He's run other huge settlements, like the Vioxx pharmaceutical case. His refrain, when in doubt, file a claim.
PATRICK JUNEAU: We don't have any dog in this fight. It's an open process. There's no closed doors. There's nothing hidden here. And if you qualify, you can and should get paid.
TROEH: BP's official complaint is not that Juneau has paid false claims. It's that he's paid too much. His office has sent checks for about $5 billion already. BP expected to pay about $7.8 billion total. The settlement will be a lot more. But he says that's the deal BP made.
JUNEAU: People have got to understand, there's no cap. In 99 percent of cases I've seen, you put a cap. And however that prints out then that's what I've got to do, is to implement what they agreed to.
TROEH: BP asked a federal judge to remove Juneau and halt claims. The judge dismissed that request, twice. Now, BP is trying to scrap the settlement altogether.
Down the road from the Deepwater Horizon Claims Center, Brenda Harris owns a gas station and sells fresh seafood. She and her husband assumed they didn't qualify for a BP claim. But a few months ago, they filed.
BRENDA HARRIS: Well, different businesses said, you know, you really should do it because the money is there - it's got to be dispersed.
TROEH: She's heard about BP's efforts to stop claims. She just hopes hers goes through. If others get paid, she says, why not her?
For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans.
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