The BP Spill: Hold off on the high-fives after Coast Guard report


Floridians should have this reaction to the federal government’s latest smiley-face report about oil in the Gulf of Mexico: Ignore it.

In early August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that most of the oil from the record BP spill was gone, one way or another. This was the same federal government that had allowed BP to lowball how much oil was leaking from the Deepwater Horizon rig. Only after outsiders demanded a look at the underwater video did BP admit that the amount of oil from the uncapped gusher was much higher.

Then last week, the Coast Guard concluded that oil had done no damage to the bottom of the gulf. Again, Florida should listen to the outsiders.

Samantha Joye was one of those University of Georgia researchers who questioned the spill totals last spring. Three weeks ago, she checked out the sea floor from a research submarine and reported seeing oil. Unlike the Coast Guard, Dr. Joye will not rush to any judgment about the extent of damage. Given Dr. Joye’s track record compared with the government’s, though, her finding should carry more weight.

Given the uncertainty over long-term damage, outgoing Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink sent a letter to Gov.-elect Scott and the three other new members of the Florida Cabinet, urging them to keep monitoring the claims process on behalf of spill victims. Ms. Sink noted, correctly, that the Gulf Coast Claims Facility has been “a process carried out mainly in the dark, without helpful communication between claimants and the GCCF and with a lack of information available to claimants about the types of supporting documentation required.”

It is clear that prodding helps. Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association CEO Keith Overton notified his members this week that emergency claims – those filed before Nov. 23 – are being paid to businesses and employees. He calls it “excellent progress.” He credits that progress, however, not just to better cooperation between his group and mediator Kenneth Feinberg but to the association’s attorneys. Notably, Mr. Feinberg has acknowledged that damage from the spill spread far beyond areas with oil on the beaches. The attorneys also created economic models to help victims back up their claims.

As we have editorialized, watching the claims process must remain a priority because almost every dollar in claims will go quickly into the still-hurting Florida economy. But the state’s elected leaders should make sure that any victims who may suffer more if the Coast Guard is wrong about long-term damage aren’t pressured into taking final claims and giving up their right to sue BP. Florida can’t afford to leave any money on the table.

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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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