In April of 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling operation suffered a catastrophic blowout and fire that resulted in loss of life for many of the oil well workers and millions of gallons of crude oil spilled into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. As the oil spread for hundreds of miles, it affected the waters, the wetlands and the beaches. In addition to creating an environmental catastrophe, the spill was immediately recognized as a devastating economic blow to hundreds of thousands of residents of the region who relied on the Gulf waters for their livelihood. Two months after the initial incident, President Barack Obama assigned responsibility for distribution of compensation to an organization called the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. The group was headed by Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney who oversaw a similar dispersal of funds following 9/11.
Although it was Obama’s explicit intention that the $20 billion fund be distributed in a way that was impartial, it quickly came under wide criticism. Because Feinberg’s salary was paid by BP he was quickly seen as acting in their interest rather than in the interest of the citizens of the Gulf coast. This was exacerbated by both the fact that he would not reveal the amount of his own salary and the slow and opaque way that the claims were handled. Complaints were constant, and six months after the disaster it was pointed out that only ten percent of claims had actually been accepted, and the average payout for the immediate disaster fund represented an average of $1,000 per month – far less then the amounts that were being requested. Many also voiced concern about the waiver that those receiving funds were required to sign foregoing future claims for damages.
As a result of these complaints and in an effort to provide more relief, the responsibility for these funds has now been transferred back to the court systems, where the terms of a settlement have been proposed that would provide more generous relief and an easier claims process. One of the brightest spots of the new proposal is that medical claims will be paid without an undue burden of proof; the process will assume that Gulf coast residents who suffered damage were affected by the oil spill, and the only proof that will be required will go to damages suffered. Many of the states’ attorneys general are pursuing lawsuits to overturn the victims’ promise not to sue as unconstitutional. If they are successful it will allow hundreds of thousands who received small sums from the GCCF to pursue further settlement claims against BP and other associated companies.