After the spill: One year on the battle for compensation in Louisiana is far from over

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One year on from the BP oil rig disaster, Louisiana is divided into those who have received huge compensation payouts – and those left struggling.

One evening in late March, fishermen from the Louisiana bayous are locked in a bureaucratic dance that began with the explosive blow-out on the BP-Transocean drilling platform, Deepwater Horizon, on 20 April, 2010.

Around 300 shrimpers, crabbers and oyster dredgers gather at a shopping mall in Lafourche – a predominantly Cajun parish dotted with small communities of Slav, Vietnamese, Cambodian, African-American and white – to hear Ken Feinberg, President Obama's appointed pay tsar, describe his plan to address their losses from the subsequent oil spill, one of the largest in US history, in the Gulf of Mexico.

A year on and much is still in dispute: the true scope of the estimated five-million-barrel spill; the whereabouts of this oil; the effect of two million gallons of Corexit, the controversial dispersant BP sprayed on the oil; how to restore miles of coastline, most of it in Louisiana, blackened with oil; and the long-term effects on wildlife and commercial fishing in the Gulf.

But one thing is agreed: unless the rig operator Transocean is held partly responsible for the accident that killed 11 of its workers, BP is picking up the bill. The company has set aside $20bn raised through the sale of US assets and is likely to face federal fines to match.

But what happens when billions are made available to the residents of one of the poorest – and legendarily corrupt – states in the union? Louisiana, and particularly its key seafood and tourism industries, was only five years into recovery from Hurricane Katrina when the BP-Transocean oil rig blew out.

"Tony Hayward [BP's CEO] wants his life back. Well, we all want our lives back!" someone yells from the audience. The Cajun state has taken a beating, and people here invariably say they'd prefer that their way of living had not been disturbed again, but since it has, and significant sums are now on the table, there is a vivid clash of cultures and expectations between unruly bayou fishermen and BP's Washington-delegated representatives, led by Ken Feinberg.

An avuncular man by nature, in this setting Feinberg acquires the bearing of an anxious official accustomed to receiving little or no thanks. With nearly two-thirds of claims paid, administrators privately say these meetings are increasingly unproductive, mainly providing a forum for people with anger-management issues or those pushing undocumented or fraudulent claims.

As of 2 April, the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) had received 500,891 claims for compensation. That's in addition to 200,000 claims even before the agency was established last August. Over 213,000 people and 60,000 businesses have received cheques. Nearly $4bn has been paid out. But 8,000 fraudulent claims are suspected; 3,429 claimants have been sent "no-loss" determination letters. In March, Feinberg's law firm raised its monthly fee by $400,000 to $1,250,000, angering fishermen who feel he's lining his pockets at their expense.

Feinberg explains that each of the affected states has different claimant profile: Louisiana, fishermen; Florida, tourist hotels and restaurants; Alabama, holiday home rentals; Mississippi, casino workers. "In each you see emotion, frustration, disappointment, anger. But you also don't hear from thousands of citizens that have claimed and are satisfied they have been dealt with in a manner they deem fair."

Here in Lafourche, it can be hard to discern between legitimate grievance and histrionics. Feinberg discreetly points out that many of the fishermen who stand up to harangue him here show up at every meeting. "I'm here to listen and to respond," he tells the audience. "Lafourche has not been forgotten. Eight thousand people and businesses have been paid out $17m in seven months."

One of those still waiting is Alexander Billiot, an elderly Cajun shrimper in a cowboy hat, who has spent much of his life trawling near the same islands his father trapped wild hogs. He went out shrimping one day after the spill and the Coast Guard turned him back. The next time he went out he came across oil. "I didn't even go out one day trawling since," he says. Billiot claims he has only been paid $200.

Under the GCCF system, the fishermen here have three choices: receive a final payment, of doubletheir 2010 losses; file for interim payments that are adjusted to documented damages; or take an emergency payment of $5,000 for an individual, or $25,000 for a business.

"If you take the quick payment, there's no more coming back to the GCCF, no more lawsuits, that's it," Feinberg tells the audience. "We're trying to do the right thing for the citizens of this parish. There have been problems. We're not perfect. We're trying to do the right thing."

But the fishermen have genuine concerns. What if, as is widely rumoured, Corexit causes health problems? Four hundred personal injury claims have been received. A few are related to the rig explosion but most are for illnesses from cancer to migraines, memory-loss and contact dermatitis blamed on the dispersant.

"Hell, they even killed my dog just with the smell of it," says Dean Blanchard, king of the Grand Isle shrimp business, who has been paid $900,000 of a $3m claim. Blanchard is one of BP's most outspoken critics.

"You could tell the last five Nobel Prize winners their only job was to screw Dean Blanchard over and they wouldn't have done a better job than BP. I got a fuel company and they brought fuel from out of state, I got an ice company and they trucked ice in. They hired my shrimp boats to pick up oil but all it was was a dog-and-pony show."

Clayton Maherne, a 35-year-old former wrestler (called "Midnight Angel" in the ring) and rig supply boat worker, maintains the month he worked out on the Gulf spill clean-up has all but destroyed his health. "A lot of us got sick from being out there, but BP doesn't want to accept that fact." His doctor, Michael Robichaux, confirms Maherne is sick but he can't find a cause. "We're not seeing anything. He was in the peak of health two years ago. A real bull of a man. Now he comes in and he's on death's doorstep."

But substantiating such claims is problematic. Cancers didn't show up in 9/11 rescue workers (another disaster fund Feinberg administered) for nearly a decade after the event. "You gotta document the claim, demonstrate the illness is from the spill, and we'll pay the claim," he states.

And what if another storm – the 2011 hurricane season is forecast to be the busiest since 2005, the year Katrina came ashore – throws up the oil that was sunk to the seabed with dispersant? Fishermen say they can't accept a final payment with so many complicating factors still unknown.

In lafourche, there is widespread anger that people less directly affected by the spill have apparently been paid larger sums, and more rapidly.

Clint Guidry, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, told the room he'd heard of money going to strippers on New Orleans' bacchanalian Bourbon Street and waitresses at Hooters, the breast-obsessed restaurant chain. "I'm losing my faith. I am losing my respect," he tells the meeting.

With so many bayou fishermen feeling that their losses have been overlooked, the issue of payments to pole dancers looms large. Blanchard, a font of questionable views on racial equality, says he heard of two Russian dancers, who were paid $28,000 and $32,000 each, and then left town.

"If you think this money is going to strippers and waitresses, you are incorrect," Feinberg corrects his accusers firmly. "We haven't paid some people in this room who need to be paid, and that is true. But this idea that almost $4bn is going to waiters and strippers and barbers is ridiculous."

Still, the GCCF is regarded in some quarters as an informal Louisiana economic stimulus package, and Feinberg acknowledges that he deliberately made it easy to make a claim. "I made it clear from the first day last August that the GCCF would be more generous in paying legitimate claims, even though I do believe there are claims the GCCF paid that would not be legally compensable in a court. I believe we did the right thing in broadening the definition of eligibility and paying more compensation than would be required by law."

A staff member at Hooters in nearby Houma confirms workers there were paid out, as were managers and beauticians at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New Orleans. High-priced restaurants in the French Quarter, including local celebrity chef Susan Spicer, also lodged claims.

Angela Harbold, also known as Reverend Spooky la Strange, a 32-year-old burlesque dancer who received an emergency payment of $4,000, believes people who claimed early "got a lot more". Restaurant managers, Harbold says, typically collected $50,000 to $60,000. Waiters and kitchen staff, $15,000 and upwards. But it all depends on paperwork – in addition to payslips, Ms Strange was required to provide a copy of the menu at House of Blues where she worked as a waitress. "Dancers couldn't claim because they work for cash tips. Same with strippers. And they don't want the IRS [Inland Revenue Service] coming down on them."

Forty-five miles away, in Raceland, the Bouviers make their living crabbing with traps, catching alligators by baiting a hook with chicken and hanging it from a tree a foot above the water, and trapping nutria, a large rodent valued for its fur.

"I'm not happy with BP for what they've done, but I can't blame them. I think it could have been prevented, but what happened, happened," Alex Bouvier says. His family has lived on the bayou – Louisiana's marshy wetlands – for generations. His grandfather could catch alligators just with a stick and his hands. Like many, Bouvier initially didn't regard the oil spill as a problem. Oil is often washing up here, some of it from natural vents in the ocean floor. "I thought it would have no effect on me, then the oil came closer in. The next thing you know, they shut us down." The Bouviers initially received cheques for $4,000 a month. Then a cheque for $11,000 came. Finally, one for $38,000. "That was a surprise. It really made my day," he recalls. Some of it went on a new mud boat for the alligator hunting season in September.

A large problem for the fishermen of Cajun country is that the price for Louisiana seafood has halved since the spill. By some accounts, dispersant is lodged in the gills of blue crabs; last month, an unusually high number of dead, new-born dolphins washed up on the beaches. In a display of confidence, US military command has ordered Louisiana seafood to be served on US military bases. But with just 19 per cent of restaurants in a survey saying their customers are favourable to Gulf seafood, a regional industry that typically produces one third of the country's shrimp supply is taking a beating.

"I'm ready to go fishing but I'm worried about the oil coming up again," Bouvier says. "If a storm comes it'll be inside my lakes and canals and that's gonna affect my 'gators probably."

Not everybody has used their payout to invest in their business. Many of those I met who had been compensated by the BP fund have spent their share on vehicles. Crabber Mickey Gisclair, aged 39, and shrimper Jonathan Crouch, aged 25, spent virtually all their BP payout on giant trucks with ludicrously raised suspensions. Still, Crouch says, "It wasn't enough. It should have been $60-80,000".

Over the road, in a trailer that's barely standing, lives William Bruce. He's the captain of a dilapidated shrimp boat, but in the aftermath of the blow-out, he commanded two "vessels of opportunity", hired by BP to lay miles of oil boom and scoop up red-orange, dispersant-saturated oil with the consistency of peanut butter.

Now, he says, he's suffering from migraines and shortness of breath. "If BP gives me $250,000, I'll sign anything. I'll buy 10 trailers and put in a sewage system. That way I'll have something to fall back on if the shrimp don't come back."

Further out on Grand Isle, where the houses are raised on stilts and, out to sea, oil rigs dot the horizon, Dean Blanchard is delivering some well-practiced criticism. He believes BP wouldn't use local boats and workers – who would have an interest in cleaning the coastline – because it was cheaper to sink the oil. Moreover, he says, the authorities opened Davis Pond Diversion, the world's largest diversion project that runs west through the Mississippi Delta, to alter the currents so the oil would beach in Louisiana, not wealthier states like Texas and Florida.

"Just think what it would cost to get rid of a billion gallons of oily water in a contaminated site some place? They didn't want to pick it up. It was cheaper for them to do it this way, mess up the marine life and mess up my business."

Blanchard's flame-haired secretary, Karen Hopkins, says she believes she's been made sick by the dispersant. "I look at pictures of myself taken last year before the spill and pictures taken now. You can see a big difference. I can't find the words I want to use, and I feel exhausted." Her doctor told her that her vitamin levels present the characteristics of a malnourished child, she says. Hopkins and her boyfriend, a shrimper, are considering moving away, perhaps back to Lafayette, where she's from.

Doctor Robichaux, whose office in Raceland lies halfway between the oil industry centre at Port Fourchon and New Orleans, is a former state senator with experience fighting the oil industry over its use of toxic chemicals. Robichaux says he has not found traces of chemical poisoning in patients like Clayton Maherne (who believes he's poisoned with benzene, methanol-zyline and mercury) yet he thinks they were made ill working on the clean-up. He says the authorities are stalling. "Some fishermen got paid, and they got paid well to help with the clean-up. But the people I know who were made sick have been paid nothing. Not a red cent."

The aftermath of the spill has also caused racial tension. Forty miles south of New Orleans on the east side of the Mississippi, the small African-American community of Pointe à la Hache has been harvesting oysters for more than a century. It's a strange, bucolic region that recalls the eerie somnambulance of Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter. The region has suffered badly in the aftermath of the spill. Tyrone Edwards, an activist preacher, claims black oystermen have been excluded from the clean-up employment opportunities, while leaders of the Vietnamese and Cambodian communities say their fishermen also lost out because the paperwork was all in English.

Merlin Enclade, whose family have worked the oyster beds for a century, explains that freshwater released to stop the oil coming ashore dropped salinity levels, killing the oysters. Now some of the beds are open again, people don't want them. "They're saying they're contaminated."

Oyster growing is a year-round trade, so it is these workers who have been hit hardest, especially as the beds had only just recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Third-generation Cajun oysterman Lanny Lafrance says the oysters in the bays aren't reproducing and that could spell long-term trouble – trouble not necessarily covered by BP's fund.

Enclade says he received an interim payment of $25,000 (although others at the marina say he was paid $12,000, suggesting that claims have become markers of status). Enclade bought a white SUV with silver rims and low-profile tires. Now he's hustling for fuel to put in it. "People are losing their houses down here and they gave Feinberg a $400,000 raise. You heard about that? Well, how's they giving him a raise when people are losing their stuff down here? Who's looking after Merlin Enclade?" He cranks the engine and takes off at speed.

In the weeks that followed the rig explosion on 22 April 2010, one man came to symbolise Louisiana's frustration with the pace of official efforts to cap the gushing well and stop the slick.

The emotionally-volatile, brick-shaped Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, took on Tony Hayward and BP. He also took on the Coast Guard, which he says obstructed his clean-up teams with red tape about life jackets and fire extinguishers.

Nungesser deployed his own teams with garden vacuum cleaners and campaigned loudly for the construction of off-shore coastal barriers to stop the oil coming ashore and protect against the accelerating erosion of the marsh. Just last month, Nungesser was on television telling the head of the Coast Guard he could "kiss his ass" if he thought the clean-up was as good as it can be without causing further damage. "It's us against the world," he says. "We don't have the Coast Guard or the Federal Government saying, 'No BP, you're gonna clean it up'." He's also concerned about the dispersant. "We know there's something bad about it. If it's not harmful, why is it so restricted?"

But more than battles with his own parish council (who have triggered an FBI investigation into his leadership in what some claim are classic Louisiana dirty-politics) the Coast Guard, senators and congressman, Nungesser has a message for BP.

Last year it was the pictures of oiled pelicans that got the world's attention. Nungesser says birds are still getting oiled – not completely – but enough to kill them over time. He wants to tell BP that there's still work to be done.

"You still have the opportunity to do the right thing," he announces. "Make these fishermen whole. Get them some healthcare. Make sure there are no long-term effects – don't just say it – and pay the claims." And what about Plaquemines Parish, which covers most of the delta that was oiled?

Nungesser figures BP is facing $5bn in fines from the spill and a further $20-30bn if the company is found to be criminally negligent. "I don't want to put a figure on it, but for Plaquemines Parish we can fix the marsh better than it was before for somewhere around a billion dollars. That's one hell of a trade-off for what we've been through.

"I'd tell BP, you don't need lawyers. Step up to the plate. Write the cheque. You're gonna make it back in six months or whatever. You wouldn't need to spend any more on advertising 'cause people around the world would say, 'BP did the right thing' – and we can chalk this whole thing up as a positive in saving coastal Louisiana."

Deepwater Horizon: The aftermath

20 April 2010 The drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, owned by BP-Transocean, explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 and injuring 17.

19 May Spilled oil from the blow-out reaches Louisiana marshlands.

30 May Embattled BP CEO Tony Hayward tells struggling Gulf of Mexico residents, "I would like my life back".

16 June A $20bn fund for damage claims is set up by BP; shareholder dividends are suspended.

20 June A leaked BP memo estimates that the rate of the oil spill could be as bad as 100,000 barrels a day.

19 September The well is completely sealed.

2 November By now, 6,814 dead animals have been collected, including 6,104 birds, 609 sea turtles and 100 dolphins.

15 November The waters are reopened to fishing, but nine days later 4,200sqm are re-closed to shrimping.

5 January 2011 The National Oil Spill Commission finds that BP, Halliburton (the company responsible for sealing the well) and Transocean had attempted to work more cheaply, helping to trigger the explosion and resulting leakage.

By Holly Williams

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