WASHINGTON — Hours before getting grilled Thursday by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, oil spill claims czar Ken Feinberg announced he will allow public review of, and comment on, the criteria for judging final claims payments.
Feinberg said the Gulf Coast Claims Facility would release a draft of its plan Wednesday for reviewing final payments and give members of the general public two weeks to offer feedback. Changes could be made based on the public comments.
In an afternoon hearing, a panel of lawmakers applauded the announcement but said it — like much on the claims facility’s agenda — should have happened sooner.
“On Dec. 16, Mr. Feinberg told me here at the Capitol that the formula for claim payments would be made publicly available on the Gulf Coast Claims Facility website,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa. “Six weeks later, this information is still not available, and I believe this is unacceptable.”
Without such transparency, people whose claims are rejected or only partially paid have not been getting the explanations they deserve, Shelby added.
Feinberg took the objections in stride, saying the lawmakers questioning him “have been among my most vigorous supporters in trying to get this program to work right and have been, thankfully, some of my most constructive critics.”
He explained delays in the public unveiling of the claims review process, as well as in the processing of claims, as the result of a careful approach.
“Senator Shelby, the reason it took longer than I had promised you (is), I’ve got to get this right,” Feinberg said.
Feinberg — as well as representatives of BP PLC, the U.S. Coast Guard, nonprofit aid organizations and others — testified more than an hour Thursday before the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery, an offshoot of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Shelby is not a member of that subcommittee, but he, as well as other senators from Gulf states, joined the subcommittee’s chairwoman, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., for Thursday’s meeting.
After the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, killing 11 and spawning a months-long leak from BP’s Macondo well, the Gulf seafood and tourism industries experienced substantial losses during what is typically their peak season.
Alabama alone faced a nearly 50 percent drop in tourism revenue, amounting to between $850 million and $1 billion, Shelby said.
Feinberg defended the work of his agency, which has been charged with evaluating and using BP money to pay claims made by individuals and businesses hurt by the spill.
The claims facility has received roughly 481,500 claims and paid more than $3.3 billion to some 168,500 individuals and businesses, according to Feinberg. In just the past five weeks, he said, 85,000 people have been granted claims under the quick payment option, which awards final claims of $5,000 for individuals and $25,000 for businesses and requires less documentation.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., was unimpressed.
“A lot of the payments, a lot of the success, a lot of the numbers that you cite … is essentially low-hanging fruit, is essentially the easiest cases,” Vitter said. “My concern is that the folks most impacted, most hit, and sometimes (in) the most dire straits are not the low-hanging fruit and are still waiting.”
In Alabama, 57 percent of claims have gone unpaid, Shelby said, and between Jan. 12 and 24, only 28 Baldwin County claims were processed — less than three per day.
Landrieu said she plans to schedule another hearing in about a month. She told Feinberg she is becoming convinced that “there is something lost between your vision and actually what’s happening on the ground.”
Speaking to reporters after his testimony, Feinberg acknowledged that his group has made some mistakes but added that it is also “doing something right” in the face of a daunting challenge.
“There are 500,000 claims,” Feinberg said. “I mean, this is formidable.”