Oil spill claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg passes $1 billion mark


Independent oil spill claims administrator Kenneth Feinberg appears to be hitting his stride, paying about $1 billion to victims across the Gulf Coast in the past month alone and surpassing the $400 million mark for Louisiana claimants during his seven weeks at the helm.

Payouts by Feinberg’s Gulf Coast Claims Facility far exceed the amount of money distributed by BP over the four months the oil giant ran the process, although advocates remain worried about a large number of unpaid claimants.

If claims had topped out in the first few weeks and tens of thousands languished for months, that would be one thing. But a lot of the unpaid claims are new in the past two weeks. Feinberg spokeswoman Debra DeShong Lee said Wednesday that 43 percent of all claims the facility has received have come in since Oct. 1.

“We think it’s because people are seeing the generosity of the program,” she said.

The Feinberg organization, which has been paid $2.5 million to administer the claims fund so far, reports that it has paid 40 percent of the 150,000 claims it’s received nationally, versus only about a third of the 56,000 Louisiana claims filed through Monday.

Most of the unpaid claims lack sufficient documentation, a problem that’s grown steadily as more claims pour in.

While Louisiana accounts for 37 percent of all claims filed, it has produced half of the 54,000 files Feinberg’s team considers deficient in documentation. Tom Costanza, Catholic Charities’ director of justice and peace, said he is concerned that Louisiana’s victims are more affected by the spill than those in other states, but are facing more obstacles based on language and education.

“With the fishermen, charter boats, those should be the priority population, but a lot of them don’t have a formal education and they need interpretation assistance,” he said. “And we’re also trying to help with our Vietnamese, Cambodian and Hispanic population.”

Costanza said Catholic Charities, which is receiving money BP gave the state for nonprofit case management, is also keeping tabs on how Feinberg’s team is handling payments in comparison to BP.

With Feinberg paying mostly six-month emergency payments, the average payments have shot way up.

The 18,000 Louisiana claims Feinberg has paid have averaged more than $23,000. By contrast, BP paid 34,000 claims in four months at an average of just $4,200 per claim. Most of those were meant to cover a single month.

Costanza said he’s concerned that Feinberg has paid nearly twice as many claims for restaurant, lodging and food-processing employees and companies as he has for fishers and direct fishing businesses.

“We feel the system is being clogged up and it needs to give some priority for fishermen,” Costanza said. “Everybody is filing and those may be legitimate, but there should be a priority on the most vulnerable and most impacted.”

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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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