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Along Gulf Coast, Cautious Optimism for Future a Year After Oil Spill Began

Wednesday was a day of remembrance on the Gulf Coast, one year after the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Jim Lehrer and Tom Bearden report on the clean-up progress and compensation efforts.

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    It was a year ago today that the Gulf oil spill erupted. When it ended 87 days later, more than 200 million gallons had spilled into the sea.

    A few vigils marked the day, while cleanups continued. Meanwhile, the people of the region tried to move on.

    One year later, from the skies above Louisiana's Gulf shoreline today, much of life appeared normal. Speedboats raced across the open water and pelicans went about their business. At the same time, crews were still cleaning remnants of oil along the marshes in a clear reminder of the BP spill.

    And officials like Gov. Bobby Jindal stopped to recall the events of last year.


    Today should certainly be a day that we take stock of how far we have come, but it also should be a day we look back and remember the heroes that allowed this state to recover and get back on its feet.


    It was April 20, 2010, when BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded 40 miles offshore. It killed 11 workers. BP took some of their relatives on a flyover today.

    The rig sank two days after the explosion. And at first officials suggested the threat of an oil spill was relatively small. But within days, a gusher of oil was discovered a mile below the surface at the damaged wellhead on the ocean floor.

    Over the ensuing weeks, the oil sullied wetlands and wildlife along vast swathes of shoreline from Louisiana to Florida.

    BP and its hired crews tried to corral or burn the massive slick. They also scattered dispersant chemicals from the air and injected it into the spouting oil at the wellhead. Meanwhile, the effort to stop the leak went on in halting fashion. Submersible robots tried and failed to shut off key valves or somehow contain the oil.

    Finally in mid-July, a cap was installed, allowing BP to control the spewing oil and pipe it to the surface for collection. And two relief wells were drilled to choke off the damaged well with mud and cement. The well was officially declared dead in September.

    In all, BP says it has spent billions of dollars on containment, cleanup and damage payments.

    But today, Gov. Jindal said it had not been enough.


    Certainly, we continue to call on BP to fulfill the promises of their ads. We continue to call on BP to truly make it right.


    In the meantime, new standards have been put in place, including increased preparedness for emergencies and more testing of backup measures, such as blowout preventers.

    But pressure to resume deep-sea drilling in the Gulf has built steadily. A federal moratorium imposed after the spill was lifted in October. Since then new deepwater drilling permits have been issued for 11 wells in the Gulf.


    And late today BP filed a federal lawsuit against the maker of the blowout preventer that failed to stop the spill. The suit charged the device had a faulty design. And even a year later, bitter disputes over money and compensation claims remain as many businesses struggle to recover.

    NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden returned to the Gulf Coast and filed this report.


    Last year Gulf Shores, Ala., was in trouble. There was oil on the beach and pictures of it were on television all over the world. The city's economy revolves around tourists and the tourists stopped coming. The high-rise condos were empty, the beaches and restaurants deserted.

    What a difference a year makes. Phillip Fikes made the four-hour drive from Tuscaloosa with his son Tom.

  • PHILLIP FIKES, tourist:

    You know, this is where a lot of people like to vacation. It's a nice place. It's a fun place for your kids and your family to come and enjoy.

    ROBERT CRAFT, mayor of Gulf Shores, Ala.: With good tourism we are going to — we will survive.


    Robert Craft is the mayor of Gulf Shores.


    We have finished the cleaning of the beaches and obviously the oil is not coming ashore anymore. So, as you see, we have got tourists back and we're looking forward to a good season.


    Real estate agent Emily Gonzalez says those condos are filling up, too.

    EMILY EILAND GONZALEZ, real estate agent: We're actually cautiously optimistic about our summer. We have seen a rebound from the deficit that we had last year, with a lack of rebookings, simply because our numbers were down with the oil on the beach.


    People in the seafood industry are also encouraged. That includes Pete Blalock, who runs a retail store and a distribution business that supplies seafood to over 30 local restaurants.

    PETE BLALOCK, Blalock Seafood & Specialty Market: I feel better this spring than I have in a long time because it seems like things are starting to get better.


    Just beneath all this optimism though, is a great deal of anger at the process that was set up to distribute the $20 billion that BP put aside to pay damage claims. People say it's arbitrary and completely unfair.

    The fund was set up after pressure from the Obama administration and is meant to compensate people directly affected by the spill, shrimpers, fishermen, restaurant owners, anyone who lost income.

  • KENNETH FEINBERG, Gulf Spill Independent Claims Fund:

    I'm here primarily to listen to what you want to tell me about this oil spill.


    Kenneth Feinberg was appointed by both BP and the government to administer the fund. He says he is completely independent of both.

    But some people we talked to didn't think so. Among them, Walton Kraver, who attended one of Feinberg's public meetings last summer at Bayou La Batre, just across Mobile Bay from Gulf Shores. Kraver owns several seafood-related businesses.

  • MAN:

    We have already closed one business, OK?


    I will check on that claim, even though I'm not up and running yet and try and accelerate the payment of that claim.


    Kraver's son Patrick and daughter-in-law Lillie say Feinberg promised to personally get back to their family but never did.

  • PATRICK KRAVER, Kraver’s Seafood Management:

    Mr. Feinberg promised us personally at a meeting — my dad — and he pointed his finger at him and said, Mr. Kraver, he said, you are directly affected. We need to get you some money quick. Six months later after we had to call him and say, look, this is getting out of hand, we have got to have some money now and we submitted a figure that was correct.

    And then they called back and they lowered the figure and then they called back again and lowered it again. And finally, they sent along about 40 percent of what we were supposed to get.


    We asked Feinberg about that recently in his Washington, D.C., office.

    There were a number of people who stood up in the audience and told you about their issues. You responded to them by saying, I'll look into it and I or somebody else will get back to you.


    Well, if that's the case, then I have overstated the case and I bear some of that blame. I mean, it may be that there are claimants who stood up at a meeting and I made a commitment and I haven't got back to them. There may be situations where I have failed in that regard. I'm the first one to say I may have failed in that regard.


    Feinberg says people were paid for what they could document and that $4 billion has already been paid to about 300,000 people. That's out of a total of about 800,000 claims.

    Pete Blalock got emergency funds from the claims office, but says he had to fight every step of the way.


    You battle them and you battle them. You do the process like they say to do, use their formula. I used accountants from day one. And I said, take it where the numbers take it, whatever the formula is. And so you do that and then they will send you back 50 cents, 25 cents on the dollar. And they won't tell you why.


    We asked Blalock how he thought the claims process was working.


    Unfair, unreasonable, stubborn, hard to talk to. When Mr. Feinberg first took over this process I had great faith in him. And more and more, I realized that he is nothing but an employee of BP.


    Harsh words.


    Well to me it's the truth. And I don't think you will find hardly anybody down here that does not agree with that.


    Feinberg rejects the assertion that the process is arbitrary or that he works in any way for BP.


    I have said this over and over again. The way that you demonstrate credibility and the success of the program, just what the Justice Department asked me to do. Is the money going out? Is it going out quickly? Is it going out in a generous fashion, in a fair way? I think the answer to that is yes.


    Another consistent complaint is a perceived discrepancy in payouts. People with direct claims, like Louisiana shrimper Acy Cooper, say they got very little, while others with only tenuous claims were paid handsomely.

  • ACY COOPER, Louisiana Shrimp Association:

    We got bellboys in New Orleans, we got waitresses, we have all kinds of people in New Orleans got money and received money and $20,000, $30,000. Now they give them $25,000 in a final settlement. They probably never lost a penny. Stop giving money where it don't belong, and give it to the true fishermen and the guys that really lost.


    There may be some perceived inconsistency when a waiter who is working next to you gets $8,000 and you get $2,000. Right away, the $2,000 claimant says, how come, how come? It's arbitrary.

    It's not arbitrary. That $8,000 waiter has submitted tax returns or documents confirming what he or she is entitled to and the other claimant has not done that. Now, there may be some inconsistencies. I'm the first one to acknowledge error. When you have got 800,000 claims and out there is BP's promise to pay $20 billion, everybody files.


    Cooper says most of his members did have the correct paperwork but still got less money than people whose income didn't come directly from the Gulf.

    Feinberg says the emergency claims process ended last November and has moved on to offering final settlements. If the offer is accepted the recipient gives up the right to sue BP for future damages.

    Mayor Craft says the final settlement offers are too low and he thinks that's deliberate.


    I do believe it's a fact that the businesses here are so stressed down, reserves are gone, they are so stressed that I think they are going to be tempted take whatever is put on the table.

    And I don't know if that was a strategic plan or not, but that's what's going to happen, I'm afraid. And when they take that money to take a final payment, they have got to release BP totally from any past losses and any future events that were to happen.


    Pete Blalock agrees.


    What they try to do more than anything is just wear you down. And they have succeeded. I think they have succeeded with a lot of people down here. They are just so tired of the process that they want to get it done, get past, and get them out of their lives. And quite honestly, I'm right near that — that stage in my life.


    I think there is plenty of room to improve the program, but this notion that there is a perception that the program is merely designed to prevent people from suing or really is designed by BP to hush them up or whatever is absolutely and categorically not true. I wouldn't be doing it if that was the case.


    Going forward, Feinberg thinks public perception will change for the better.


    There is a goal in the second year of this program to do our best to modify or alter a perception that there is some hidden agenda here. There really is no hidden agenda.

    The agenda here is open and transparent — $4 billion demonstrates it, I think. We want to pay people. We want to pay them promptly. We want to pay them fairly. That's the goal of the program. My credibility is on the line. I mean, I'm really determined to continue to do that.


    But given the hard feelings we encountered in the Gulf that will be a very tough sell.