Oil-spill vessel captains say damages still haven’t been paid


ORANGE BEACH — Bryan Watts, captain of Undertaker Charters, has already turned down about a dozen fishing trips this year because of the damage his boat sustained during BP’s Vessels of Opportunity program last year.

More than five months ago, he sent the oil giant a $20,000 claim for his 42-foot boat, which was damaged by pressure washers and a steel barge.

Watts has yet to receive a response.

“It’s been a nightmare,” he said.

Watts was among more than 100 boat captains and concerned residents inside the Orange Beach Community Center today.

No one from BP was present at the meeting. A company spokesman, Justin Saia, said “it would not be appropriate” for the company to reveal individual claim information in public.

“We have committed to evaluating each case,” Saia wrote in an e-mail to the Press-Register this week. “Our claims team works with each captain to understand their situation. Our goal is to treat each claimant equally and our process has been designed to do that.”

Orange Beach resident Mark Mead, who organized the meeting, filed a $10,000 claim about eight months ago for his 19-foot boat that was damaged during a decontamination process in Mississippi.

He said he’s made hundreds of phone calls, desperate for a response, but BP representatives will only tell him that his claim is under review.

“BP is trying to wear us down,” Mead said. “The longer they take the more resolve I have, and I’m not done with this.”

According to a “Master Vessel Charter Agreement,” BP stated that reimbursements would not be paid for repairs needed “as a result of normal wear or aging of the vessel, its engines and attached equipment or trailers.”

The agreement also states, however, that the company would pay for damage that resulted from a “specific incident” that occurred during the cleanup.

Several of the captains at today’s meeting, including Watts and Mead, said their boats sustained more than “normal wear and tear.”

Al Keahl, who runs Fish Trap Charters in Orange Beach, had three boats in the Vessels of Opportunity Program.

All three were damaged, he said, and he filed a $72,000 claim with BP. The company offered him $2,000, he said.

In order to ensure that he could run fishing trips this spring, he spent $12,000 of his money to fix one of his boats. He said he exhausted his private savings just to survive the winter.

Like Mead, the claims Keahl filed with BP are still “under review,” he said.

“I’m not going to give up on this,” Keahl said. “I’ll follow them to the grave.”

Mayor Tony Kennon, who helped facilitate the event, expressed his ongoing frustration with BP and its claims process.

“It is exactly how they function — delay, deflect, hide, drag you out — because a certain percent of you will get tired, get caught up in the season and go away,” Kennon told the crowd. “And another certain percentage of you will take a bone if they offer it to you because you’re in a desperate situation.”

He encouraged the captains to continue to pressure BP to make the payments that were promised.

“It’s a war,” he said. “And it’s not going to be over for several years.”

Tracy Redding, who owns AAA Charters in Bon Secour, said she cannot book fishing trips and dolphin-spotting excursions. She’s an agent for about 100 different boats, and the captains haven’t had their vessels repaired because they are tied up in the claims process.

“Even though I’m finally getting phone calls,” she said, “I don’t know where to put them.

“Most of my fleet can’t go back to work, and they’re nowhere near close to going back to work. I’m really stumped.”

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

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