Gulf residents miffed by BP resuming dividends


NEW ORLEANS — BP’s decision to resume paying dividends rankled Gulf Coast residents Tuesday who saw it as another sign the company wants to move on even though many are still suffering from last year’s massive oil spill.

Oil stains linger in marshes along Louisiana’s fragile coast and tens of thousands of victims are waiting for final payments from a $20 billion compensation fund, while a large number of people haven’t received any money at all.

The 7 cents per ordinary share payable to BP shareholders March 28, or about $1.25 billion overall, isn’t a lot by BP’s standards — it’s half what the company paid investors for the final quarter of 2009 — but Gulf residents frowned on the idea of going back to business as usual.

“BP has so much money that we can’t really fathom it, but BP has to take care of its obligations to us,” said Pass Christian, Miss., shrimper Bobby Barnett.

Barnett said London-based BP still owes him compensation, which he has filed for, for damages from a shortened season after the spill halted shrimping in some areas for much of the summer. He’s also worried about the long-term effect on Gulf seafood from the dispersants BP used to break up the oil.

“This is a slap in the face to the thousands of victims forced to watch BP line its shareholders’ pockets while they struggle to pay their mortgage and put food on the table,” said James P. Roy, a lead attorney for plaintiffs suing BP and other companies over the disaster.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu acknowledges that it’s up to BP to decide when and how much it pays in dividends to its shareholders.

But, the Louisiana Democrat said, “I intend to hold them accountable for paying every penny they owe to make businesses and families in Louisiana whole again and to repair the damage the spill did to the state’s coast and our seafood industry.” She is pushing for at least 80 percent of the penalties ultimately charged to BP under the Clean Water Act to be returned to the Gulf Coast for long-term economic and environmental recovery.

BP announced in June that it would not pay dividends to shareholders for the rest of 2010 as it sought to get a grip on its huge liabilities from the April 20 rig explosion and oil spill that followed. At the same time, BP agreed to commit $20 billion to a fund to compensate victims of the spill.

A schedule of payments to the fund called for BP to make an initial contribution of $3 billion last summer and $2 billion in the fall, followed by $1.25 billion per quarter until the full figure is reached. But as of last week — some seven months after the fund was announced — only $3.54 billion of the fund had been spent, according to BP.

The administrator of the fund, Washington lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, is preparing to make final payments to individuals and businesses. Any money left over is expected to be returned to BP.

The Associated Press reported Monday that the fund has paid a final settlement to just one of the thousands of people and businesses waiting for checks, and that $10 million payout went to a company after the oil giant intervened on its behalf.

As of last weekend, roughly 91,000 people and businesses had filed for final settlements. Thousands have received some money to tide them over until a final settlement amount is offered, but only one business listed as paid on the facility’s website has so far received a check.

Billy Nungesser, president of oil-soaked Plaquemines Parish, said he’s not opposed to BP giving a return to its shareholders, but he has a problem with the timing considering the company’s unfinished business to restore the Gulf. Such payments only benefit investors — Roy, Landrieu, Barnett and Nungesser said they don’t own any BP stock.

“I feel like they think this is something in the past and they want to close the book on it,” Nungesser said.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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