Special to The Leader
The Orange Leader
It's decision time for many whose livelihoods were affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Private claims of economic hardship against oil giant British Petroleum (BP) will become part of a class-action settlement process, with participants likely forfeiting the right to sue later on their own unless they formally opt out of the deal this week.
Beaumont attorney Brent Coon represents about 14,000 claimants associated with the fishing, tourism and oil industries from the five Gulf states.
"If you were impacted - lost some business, lost some period of employment - there are critical deadlines. If you do not exercise that choice by Thursday, the court will make it for you."
Joining the class could be the fastest way to receive compensation, but Coon says many have good reasons to opt out. Some worry that complex eligibility criteria leave too much uncertainty about their share of the proposed $7.8 billion settlement. Others fear the deal won't factor in the spill's long-term impacts.
National Wildlife Federation Vice President for Wildlife Conservation John Kostyack says more damage is likely to come. He wants BP to agree up front to fair settlements that take unknowns into account.
"A lot of things are playing out that are unprecedented: this amount of oil, this amount of dispersant, this amount of methane put into that system. That's never been done. We're in a gigantic experiment. So, we need to make sure that there's money built into any settlement to deal with the unknowns."
Kostyack is concerned about recent reports that BP and the Justice Department are closing in on a settlement deal of their own that might amount to billions of dollars less than if the case were to go to trial. The fines are meant to deter oil companies from future reckless practices, and they are used by states for restoration.
While Kostyack hopes a drawn-out court battle can be avoided, he says the government should not let BP off too easy when there are still so many unanswered questions - such as what will happen to the remaining oil on the Gulf floor.
"Will that oil deteriorate naturally, or will some monster storms come along and send that oil into the marshes and other coastal habitats?"
Texas wasn't hit as hard by the spill as some other areas, and some plaintiffs in the state are excluded from the class suit. However, attorney Coon says many Texans were impacted dramatically and deserve full compensation.
"Southeast Texas, in particular, is heavily reliant on commercial fisheries, most notably the shrimping industry. And the economies within those areas suffered greatly as well, because when you couldn't shrimp, there was no money going back into those communities."
A temporary moratorium on offshore rig operations after the spill hurt many oil-related businesses in Texas, Coon adds.
A New Orleans judge will hold a fairness hearing on Nov. 8 to determine whether the class-action settlement proposal can proceed. BP is urging the court to approve the plan, saying the majority of claimants favor it.