The man in charge of BP’s $20 billion oil-leak compensation fund is closing seven of 27 remaining claims offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Eight other offices were closed earlier this year, but five of those were in areas that continue to have claims services at nearby locations.
Offices already closed in Louisiana were in Hammond, Gretna, New Orleans, Morgan City, St. Bernard, Lafitte and the Plaquemines Parish village of Pointe a la Hache.
All but Hammond and Pointe a la Hache remain served by nearby claims offices.
“I don’t think anybody is being disadvantaged,” Ken Feinberg, administrator of the fund, said Tuesday during an editorial board meeting at The Advocate. “There are other offices relatively close by.”
People and businesses financially affected by the deepwater disaster have two more years to file claims for reimbursement of financial losses.
The latest office closures take effect Thursday and include two of Louisiana’s 11 remaining claims centers. Those that will close are in New Iberia and the Plaquemines Parish community of Venice.
It was 50 miles south of Venice in the Gulf of Mexico that a BP rig exploded and killed 11 men in April 2010. That tragedy was compounded by the release of about 200 million gallons of oil that caused environmental and economic damage from the Florida keys to southeast Texas.
BP pledged $20 billion to cover the economic losses that followed. President Barack Obama appointed Feinberg to receive claims and administer the money.
“We have consolidated the operations of several … claims site offices throughout the Gulf,” said Feinberg, whose law firm in Washington, D.C., and New York City is paid $1.25 million per month to process compensation demands.
The Louisiana offices that will remain open after Thursday include Cut Off, Grand Isle, Harvey, Houma and Lafitte.
Other offices remain open in Morgan City, New Orleans, Slidell, and St. Bernard.
“We’re slowly but surely shutting down Louisiana claims offices,” Feinberg said. “But we’re around. We’re not going anywhere.”
A frequent Feinberg critic, who was not present at the meeting, did not disagree with the decision to close the other offices.
George Barasich, a shrimp and oyster fisherman in the St. Bernard Parish community of Violet, said most people can file their claims through Feinberg’s website, http://www.gulfcoastclaimsfacility .com.
“You can go to an office,” Barasich said. “You can go to the website. Either way, you get the same result: not much.”
Barasich, who is president of the United Commercial Fisherman’s Association and a board member of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, said Feinberg’s staff has rejected his claims and those of other fishermen who appear to have substantial evidence of their losses.
“They’re coerced into taking chump change,” in settlement of their claims, Barasich said.
“The claims process is a failure, a total failure,” Barasich said. “Their evaluations of what my losses are, and my evaluations are just worlds apart.”
Disappointing shrimp and oyster harvests are coupled with relatively low demand for Gulf seafood because some consumers fear it is tainted by oil, Barasich added.
If this continues, Barasich said: “You’re screwed. You’re done.
“This is unfair. We’ve got production records,” Barasich added. He said he and many other commercial fishermen also have tax records to further verify their losses.
But Feinberg said many other claimants have been satisfied with the process.
He noted that his staff paid out $5.1 billion in claims in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas during the past 12 months.
More than $2 billion of that total was paid to claimants in Florida. More than $1.5 billion was paid to claimants in Louisiana.
“Louisiana has received more money than Mississippi and Alabama put together,” Feinberg noted.
“We’re getting good support now from the oystermen and the shrimpers,” Feinberg said.
He said Floridians have received more money because they have a larger population and because their claimants have done a good job of documenting their losses.
“Louisianians have a documentation problem,” Feinberg added. He said claims will not be paid to people or businesses that do not or cannot provide adequate proof of loss.
More than half of the $5.1 billion paid to Gulf Coast claimants in the past year was in the form of emergency payments for the first six months of losses, Feinberg noted in his first annual report.
Final payments, for which recipients pledge not to sue BP for any reason, totaled $901 million.
Interim payments, for which no such pledge is required, totaled nearly $297 million.
Quick payments of $5,000 to individual claimants and $25,000 to business claimants totaled more than $1.2 billion. Acceptance of a quick payment means that the recipient cannot sue BP for any reason related to last year’s disaster.
Feinberg said he and his law firm would not receive a dime of any BP money that remains unclaimed after August 2013.
He noted, however, that BP pays claims of state and local governments from the same $20 billion pot from which individuals and companies draw compensation.
Since April 2010, Feinberg said, BP has awarded $1.6 billion of that money to government entities for cleanup expenses, coastal restoration and other expenses.
That leaves about $13.3 billion for future claims.
Feinberg said coastal residents have every right to sue BP, but he suggested their best bet would be to document their losses and pursue their claims with his Gulf Coast Claims Facility.
“I urge the citizens of Louisiana: Move on already,” Feinberg said. “The Gulf is returning to normal.”
Feinberg said continued hard times along the coast are the result of a terrible economy.
“It’s not oil anymore,” Feinberg said. “I think people should move on already. This is history now.”