The process of adjudicating damages claims against BP for the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster was officially transferred to an independent organisation yesterday – but anger along the Gulf Coast and legal uncertainty surrounding the compensation awards mean that BP will not quickly know the total bill it faces.
It remains unclear whether the residents and businesses that have suffered financially from the spill will use the new claims facility in great numbers, or choose to resort to the courts in the hope of winning a better settlement from the British oil giant.
Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer appointed to apportion the $20bn (£13bn) claims fund put up by BP, was yesterday fighting to persuade people to use it. He faced criticism for insisting that compensation awards, apart from some emergency payouts in the next six months, should be viewed as full and final legal settlements, and that claimants must therefore sign away their right to sue BP.
"I'm going to have to draw some tough lines," Mr Feinberg said, "but I'm hoping that I'll be able to enjoy the benefit of saying, 'Well, if I haven't found you eligible and you opt out of this voluntary programme, no court will find you eligible'."
He said he had not yet decided if claimants should also have to agree not to sue other companies involved in the disaster.
Thirty-five offices set up in the five coastal states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida re-opened for business yesterday after BP stopped accepting claims ahead of the handover last week.
Over the next few days, Mr Feinberg and his team may begin to get a picture of just how extensive the claims on the fund are going to be, but calculating the economic cost to businesses could prove fiendishly complicated, particularly in sectors such as tourism, which has been affected by the perception that Gulf coast beaches may be contaminated. Many people in the Gulf of Mexico region privately admit that they still do not know how serious the damage from the spill will be or how long it will last.
Sid Patrick, who owns Captain Sid's fish market and restaurant on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain in Metairie, Louisiana, said he and his wife, Pam, were just beginning to assemble the paperwork to submit a claim to the new fund. That will mean going over their accounts for the past two years to demonstrate the significance of the fall-off in business since the oil spill. At a rough guess, he says his trade is down about 30 per cent compared with this time last year.
But, as government restrictions on fishery areas in the Gulf and the surrounding inland waters are eased, he agrees he is still uncertain how long term the damage will be.
The Gulf's crayfish fishing season opens on 1 November and Mr Patrick is counting on the harvest to plug some of the holes that the spill opened in his business. "We don't know how long this going to last," Mr Patrick said. "How many years this is going to be going on for, we still don't really know."